- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Retired Sen. Bob Kerrey used campaign funds to pay for expenses incurred by media inquiries into a 1969 Navy Seal operation that resulted in the deaths of Vietnamese civilians.

In addition, Rep. Gary A. Condit, California Democrat, is considering using the same maneuver to open his campaign war chest to pay mounting legal and public relations bills stemming from his affair with intern Chandra Levy, who has been missing since early May.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) approved Mr. Kerrey's expenditure of nearly $60,000 on a 5-1 vote, citing Mr. Kerrey's Vietnam record as a prominent subject in each of his federal campaigns.

"The commission concludes that the media would not have focused on Senator Kerrey's activities if he had not been a candidate and strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, a prominent United States Senator, and a potential candidate in 2000 for the Senate or the presidency," the commission wrote in its little-noticed July 17 finding.

The only commissioner to dissent, Bradley A. Smith, said campaign funds should not have been used because the Nebraska Democrat no longer held public office.

"As all of Mr. Kerrey's campaigns have been run and his tenure as a senator has come to a close, any interest Mr. Kerrey has in addressing such issues has to do with preserving his personal image in private life, not in campaigning for or holding office," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Kerrey, who now serves as president of the New School University in New York, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment, his spokeswoman said yesterday.

Gerhard Klann, a member of Mr. Kerrey's Navy Seal team, accused the unit of deliberately opening fire on 21 Vietnamese women, children and old men in Thanh Phong 32 years ago. Mr. Kerrey said his unit was returning enemy fire during a nighttime raid and did not discover who was hit until the following morning.

Newsweek reporter Greg Vistica began investigating Mr. Kerrey's war record in 1998, when Mr. Kerrey was considered a likely presidential candidate. When Mr. Kerrey dropped out of the race, Newsweek killed the story.

However, Mr. Vistica left Newsweek and continued to investigate the charges for two years and reported the story for the New York Times on April 25. The article prompted substantial media attention, and Mr. Kerrey retained the public relations firm of Westhill Partners to develop his communication strategy and respond to media requests.

Mr. Kerrey chose not to seek re-election to his Senate seat and retired in January, and no longer had a political staff at his disposal. Mr. Kerrey had more than $1.1 million cash on hand in the 2000 campaign year-end report.

Campaign funds cannot be spent for personal use, which regulations define as "any use of funds in a campaign account of a present or former candidate to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal officeholder." Public relations expenses are not considered personal use.

While Mr. Kerrey asked the commission for an advisory opinion before paying his bills, Mr. Condit made no such request, said Kelly Huff, FEC spokeswoman.

Calls for comment were not returned yesterday from Mr. Condit's congressional office, or from the public relations firm he retained to handle media requests.

Mike Lynch, Mr. Condit's chief of staff, told Roll Call in a July 12 article that campaign funds will be used "if it is deemed permissible," but that Mr. Condit is prepared to use his own personal funds if needed.

"If it's permissible to a full extent or some extent, obviously we will look at that. If it isn't permissible, obviously we will live with that. If there are steps to take along the way, we'll do that," Mr. Lynch told the Capitol Hill newspaper.

Mr. Condit could meet FEC requirements by arguing that the media publicity and expenses surrounding Miss Levy's disappearance would not have occurred if he were not an officeholder, the same argument used by Mr. Kerrey, said Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer with Foley and Lardner who specializes in political laws and regulations.

"On one hand, the law says that you are not supposed to use campaign funds for personal expenses; on the other hand, the law is also pretty lax in terms of the kinds of things you can use the money for," Miss Mitchell said.

If Mr. Condit uses campaign funds without first asking the FEC to evaluate the validity of such payments, "that is problematic" and grounds for an FEC complaint, Miss Mitchell said.

Mr. Condit raised $180,013 and spent $111,563 in the first six months of the year. The report's itemized list of expenses did not include payments to the public relations firm or his attorneys, who arranged police interviews and an inconclusive lie-detector test to determine if he had any knowledge of the missing former intern's whereabouts.

One senior Republican House aide questioned the validity of using federal election funds as a legal-defense fund.

"Legal defense has nothing to do with candidacy; this is a personal situation," the aide said.

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