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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

FEC: Ex-Sen. Larry Craig should be fined for using campaign funds in personal legal battle

By Michael Doyle McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Former Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho should personally pay a “significant civil penalty” of $70,000 for his “serious violations” of campaign finance laws, the Federal Election Commission argues in a recent court filing. Craig’s campaign committee should also pay a separate $70,000 penalty, the FEC attorneys argue. The penalties totaling $140,000 would have a “real deterrent impact” on other politicians who seek to use campaign funds for personal purposes, the FEC declared in its Sept. 30 filing in federal court. The proposed penalties, in addition to having Craig pay back $216,984 to the campaign committee, would also resolve the FEC’s complaint that Craig had improperly used campaign committee funds to pay for personal legal expenses. The expenses arose from Craig’s effort to withdraw a guilty plea to a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct, following a disputed 2007 incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “The improper use of campaign funds harmed Craig’s contributors and the public, undermining faith in government and the political process,” FEC attorney Kevin Hancock wrote. Still, the FEC’s proposed penalties fall short of what they might have been. In theory, officials could have asked that Craig and his campaign committee each pay a penalty of $216,984, an amount equal to the amount alleged to have been improperly used. Andrew D. Herman, Craig’s attorney with the Brand Law Group, said Friday that a formal legal response will be filed in coming weeks. In prior legal filings, Craig’s attorneys have argued that the former senator reasonably relied on past FEC advisory opinions allowing use of campaign funds for certain legal expenses. Craig was “engaged in official, Senate-sponsored travel” at the time of his arrest, his attorneys have argued. A key legal question for U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson now is whether Craig acted in “good faith,” based on the advisory opinions issued to other lawmakers who used campaign funds for legal expenses. A decision that Craig acted in good faith could protect him from civil liability. Craig’s case arises from his arrest on June 11, 2007, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport while he was returning to Washington from Idaho. An undercover police officer said Craig sexually solicited him in the men’s room. Craig pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, but denied any sexual intentions. Craig retired at the end of 2008, concluding a congressional career that began in the House of Representatives in 1981. Following his initial 2007 guilty admission, Craig hired two law firms in a failed effort to withdraw the politically embarrassing plea. Using campaign funds, he paid $139,352 to the Washington-based firm Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, and an additional $77,032 to the Minnesota-based firm Kelly & Jacobson. The FEC concluded Craig violated the federal law that prohibits converting campaign funds to private use. The commission subsequently sued after Craig rebuffed earlier efforts to resolve the issue administratively. Earlier this year, Jackson rejected Craig’s request to dismiss the FEC lawsuit. In the latest legal filing, the agency asks that the judge formally conclude that Craig violated the law and impose penalties. Craig now is a principal in New West Strategies, a self-described “strategic advocacy” firm with offices in Washington and Eagle, Idaho. The firm currently represents Western Pacific Timber, which has paid Craig’s firm $80,000 so far this year, Senate lobbying records show.