Melancon Camp Files Ethics Complaint Against Vitter Campaign

Posted March 9, 2010 at 2:25pm

The contentious Senate race between Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Sen. David Vitter (R) spilled into the Senate on Tuesday, when a Melancon aide filed an ethics complaint over the Republican Senator’s fundraising materials.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the Senate Ethics Committee, Melancon Campaign Manager Bradley Beychok contends that a February fundraising letter from Vitter’s campaign featured an image similar to the Great Seal of the United States, an eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch.

“He very clearly sent a campaign fundraising appeal that’s designed to look like an official document,” Beychok said in a conference call Tuesday.

The Melancon campaign cited a federal law that prohibits the use of the great seal, or its likeness, to “convey a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States.”

Brian Svoboda, an attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie who is representing the Melancon campaign, summarized the law, stating: “If your stationary has an eagle, and it has talons, then you’ve got a problem.”

In a statement, Vitter dismissed the ethics complaint, comparing the grievance about his use of the eagle logo to claims made by the National Football League over ownership of the phrase “Who Dat,” a rally cry used by fans of the New Orleans Saints.

“Charlie Melancon’s arrogant allies who run this Congress don’t own the rights to the eagle any more than the NFL owns the rights to ‘Who Dat,'” Vitter said in a statement. “Right after Melancon quits the Budget Committee because he doesn’t have time to fight the Obama budget, he’s spending his time filing frivolous complaints,” Vitter said.

But Melancon’s campaign also cited the Senate ethics manual, which reiterates the federal statute that covers both the great seal and the Senate’s official seal, and states “commercial use, personal use, or campaign use of these seals would be improper.”

The Senate ethics manual, in a reference section for campaign-related inquiries, also notes: “If a Member’s campaign wants to use a symbol of government on its campaign stationery, a depiction of the Capitol dome would be appropriate.”

Beychok declined to discuss how the campaign expects the Ethics Committee to respond to the complaint, stating: “The system will do what they think’s appropriate.”

Svoboda acknowledged, however, that he could not cite a public instance in which the Ethics panel has previously addressed a similar issue.

Melancon aides said although the allegations focus on violations of federal law — which carries a punishment of up to six months in prison or fines — the campaign did not plan to reach out to the Justice Department, adding that the Ethics Committee could opt to forward the complaint.

The Louisiana Democratic Party similarly targeted Vitter in August over statements he made during town hall meetings in the state, arguing the events qualified as campaign functions because he criticized Melancon and other Democrats. The meetings took place in Melancon’s district.

Beychok threatened to file additional ethics complaints against Vitter, stating: “Every time he does something that runs afoul of the law we will file a complaint.”

In his statement, Vitter questioned Melancon’s motives.

“Funny, Charlie Melancon didn’t file an ethics complaint when Barack Obama used an eagle seal in his presidential campaign. Maybe it’s because Charlie endorsed Obama,” Vitter said, referring to a logo briefly used by Obama’s presidential campaign in mid-2008, which featured a similar eagle.