Federal judge to hear ex-Sen. Craig’s suit on use of campaign funds for solicitation-case legal fees

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A hearing this week in federal court in Washington involving former Sen. Larry Craig, whose political career crashed after his 2007 arrest for soliciting sex in a bathroom at a Minneapolis airport, could have far-reaching ramifications on the future use by lawmakers of campaign cash to pay legal bills.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson will hear arguments Wednesday on a motion by Mr. Craig’s attorneys to dismiss a lawsuit brought June 11 by the Federal Election Commission, which accuses the former Idaho Republican and his re-election committee of converting more than $200,000 in campaign contributions to pay for Mr. Craig’s personal legal fees.

The FEC lawsuit says Mr. Craig illegally used campaign funds to pay legal expenses after his June 2007 arrest at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, and efforts he later made to withdraw the plea. 

The complaint said the Craig re-election committee disbursed more than $480,000 for legal fees and other expenses, including $213,000 to two law firms related to Mr. Craig’s efforts to withdraw his guilty plea.

The lawsuit said the legal expenses were not incurred in connection with Mr. Craig’s campaign for federal office or with his “ordinary and necessary duties” as a senator and, as a result, amounted to “impermissible personal use.”

But Mr. Craig’s lawyers argued that their client was “engaged in official Senate-sponsored travel” while in Minnesota and, as a result, was entitled to use campaign cash to pay his legal bills as other legally embattled lawmakers have done before. They also have cited previous FEC rulings — which they said were “conspicuously absent” from the new lawsuit — allowing the expenditure of campaign funds for legal fees in similar cases.

Judge Jackson’s ruling could affect the widespread use of campaign funds by members of Congress to pay legal fees.

“Legal defense funds are another way for special interests to throw money to their friends to influence laws,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen. “This money means a lot to members. This is something that lawmakers take very seriously.”

In the dismissal motion, Mr. Craig’s lawyers — Andrew D. Herman and Stanley M. Brand — noted that the FEC, in a 2007 advisory opinion, ruled that former Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe’s use of campaign funds to pay his legal fees was legal in a Justice Department investigation that focused on the his alleged behavior with male House pages during a 1996 trip.

The lawyers said the advisory opinion, passed by the FEC on a 4-0 vote, described the Grand Canyon trip as an “official Congressional visit” and the legal fees as “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with his duty as a House member.”

Although Judge Jackson will hear the arguments Wednesday, it is not clear when she might rule on it.

The FEC is seeking, among other things, an order that Mr. Craig repay the funds to Craig for U.S. Senate and a civil penalty against him and two other defendants, the Craig for U.S. Senate Committee and Kaye O’Riordan, the re-election committee’s treasurer. It said Mr. Craig was arrested “for purely personal conduct unrelated to his duties as a federal officeholder.”

Mr. Craig, who left office in 2008, is now a lobbyist with New West Strategies, a “strategic advocacy” firm with offices in Washington and Eagle, Idaho. He has denied any wrongdoing in his use of campaign cash for his legal fees.

 

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