WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s efforts to use campaign contributions to pay legal bills surrounding his 2007 sex sting arrest were put under a microscope Monday in U.S. District Court.
The Federal Elections Commission considers it improper, but Craig’s lawyer contends the agency has allowed at least one other politician to dip into campaign funds to cover expenses under arguably similar circumstances.
District Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s questioning of Craig’s defense attorney, Andrew Herman, tried to establish a line of what were permissible uses of campaign money under federal law.
Craig’s trouble began more than five years ago when an undercover police officer at a Minneapolis airport accused him of soliciting sex in a public restroom. Craig pleaded guilty to a charge of disturbing the peace, then employed both a Washington, D.C.-based firm and attorneys in Minnesota in an unsuccessful attempt to get the plea thrown out. He retired from the Senate in 2009.
In fighting the charges, Craig paid two law firms more than $200,000 out of campaign coffers. The FEC ruled that was an improper use of public money and sued. Craig’s attorneys argue the arrest took place during official duties, prompting the larger legal question at the center of Monday’s hearing: For what can politicians use donor money?
In Monday’s testimony, Herman pointed to the FEC’s decision not to prosecute former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona under what the defense deemed similar circumstances. The Department of Justice looked into a 1996 trip Kolbe made with congressional pages to the Grand Canyon after accusations of misconduct. Kolbe was cleared of wrongdoing, and in 2007 the FEC determined because the trip was made in connection to Kolbe’s legislative position, he could use campaign money to cover the investigation.
Herman said the Kolbe decision provided “crystal clear” and “plain vanilla” evidence Craig’s case should be viewed the same way. “Any fair reading of Kolbe provides explicit approval of the use of funds for legal purposes,” Herman said.
But Jackson took issue with the reading, pointing to the assertion the Justice Department was only looking into the travel of Kolbe, not his specific conduct. Herman countered the FEC had to have known Kolbe was under investigation for inappropriate conduct. Their decision to change the rules in trying Craig, Herman said, was evidence of “buyer’s remorse.”
FEC attorney Kevin Hancock contends the damning evidence that Craig’s behavior had nothing to do with his congressional duties is contained in a letter sent from Craig to a Senate Ethics Committee panel shortly after his arrest.
In the letter, Craig said the alleged activity was “purely personal conduct unrelated to the performance of official Senate duties.”
“This case should be resolved by Sen. Craig’s confession,” Hancock said.
Jackson will rule soon on whether Craig will have to repay the legal fees out of his own pocket. The FEC also seeks civil damages from Craig and campaign treasurer Kaye L. O’Riordan.
Jackson’s decision will likely have ramifications in the Beltway and beyond, as it will interpret laws controlling spending by political officials.