- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici can use campaign funds to pay off legal bills as he fights an ongoing Senate ethics inquiry, attorneys for the Federal Election Commission said.

Mr. Domenici, 75, who announced his retirement last year, has been the target of an ethics complaint filed in March by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which said he broke ethics rules in 2006 when contacting the U.S. attorney in New Mexico about an ongoing investigation.

The senator has disputed the accusations.

FEC attorneys yesterday said Mr. Domenici can use campaign money to pay his legal bills because such expenses aren’t considered “personal in nature.”

But the FEC’s board will be unable to formally approve the recommendation at its meeting next week because four spots on the six-member body are vacant.

The vacancies stem from a political stalemate over President Bush’s nomination of Hans A. von Spakovsky to the commission. Mr. von Spakovsky, a former Georgia elections official and a lawyer in the Justice Department, served on the board last year as a recess appointment.

Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin have put holds on the appointment, prompting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to insist that Mr. von Spakovsky’s vote be part of a slate with three other pending FEC nominations.

The deadlock has held up all four nominations and left the bipartisan board with two members, which is short of a quorum needed to conduct major business.

A spokesman for the FEC said the commission’s remaining two members — David M. Mason and Ellen L. Weintraub — will discuss the opinion at a Jan. 24 meeting but won’t be able to formally approve the measure without a four-member quorum.

At issue in the inquiry is whether Mr. Domenici tried to pressure then-U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias to file charges in a public corruption case involving Democrats.

The ethics group said Mr. Domenici was pressuring Mr. Iglesias to act quickly on a pending corruption probe shortly before the November 2006 elections. Mr. Domenici’s office yesterday referred questions about the matter to his attorney.

Mr. Domenici’s attorney, Donald F. McGahn II, told the FEC that the senator called Mr. Iglesias “to obtain information regarding the status of a widely reported public corruption investigation of concern to the senator’s constituents,” according to the FEC.

He also said the inquiry is confidential and “clearly and directly related to Senator Domenici’s conduct as a member of the United States Senate.”

Mr. Domenici announced his retirement in October, citing a diagnosis of an incurable brain disease.

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