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December 17, 2008

Coleman wants to use campaign funds to pay his legal bills

Norm Coleman wants to use campaign funds to pay his high-powered criminal defense attorneys in the Kazeminy affair:

“We intend to have any legal fees related to what we believe to be a politically inspired legal action to be covered by the senator’s campaign," said Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich.

The tactic may be risky: The Federal Election Commission allows elected officials to use their war chests to pay legal bills only if the action/investigations arise as a result of their tenure in office or campaigns.

Many of the allegations against Coleman and his wife pre-date the as-yet undecided race against Franken -- even though Coleman has argued the matter only came to light as a result of the campaign. [Politico]

Coleman's argument for tapping his campaign coffers as told to Politico is ridiculous. Coleman needs a lawyer because the FBI is investigating allegations that his friend Nasser Kazeminy milked a Texas oil services company for a lot of money and sent some of it to Norm and Laurie Coleman.

Papers were filed in the two lawsuits shortly before the election. There is no evidence that either of the groups suing Coleman's sugar daddy, Nasser Kazeminy, were intending to influence the outcome of the election.

The main guy suing Coleman in Texas is the former CEO of the oil services company, a self-proclaimed Republican whose beef is with Kazeminy, not Coleman. The CEO had a motive to get his lawsuit out first because he knew he was about to get sued in Delaware by angry shareholders for allegedly colluding with Kazeminy to fleece the company.

In the past, the Federal Elections Commission has ruled that candidates can only use campaign funds to defend themselves against lawsuits pertaining to their campaign activities or official duties.

There is a better argument for allowing Coleman to tap his campaign funds for his legal defense, but if I were the senator, I wouldn't want to go there.

Maybe Nasser Kazeminy's infamous (alleged) assertion that he wanted to give Coleman money because "U.S. Senators don't make ----" makes Coleman eligible to use campaign funds. Because, if Kazeminy said and did what the lawsuits allege, he would have been paying Coleman because of his position, regardless of whether he expected official acts in return.

Coleman's official position may also have influenced the ways in which people went about giving him stuff as well as Coleman's obligations to report those gifts on his financial disclosure forms. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was recently convicted of several crimes for failing to report gifts.

The lawsuits allege that Kazeminy cooked up an illegal scheme to funnel money from his oil services company to Coleman via the Hays Company, which employs Laurie Coleman.  Arguably, the alleged subterfuge wouldn't have been necessary if Coleman was a private citizen.

If Coleman wasn't a senator, his rich friends could openly shower him with money, designer suits, cheap accommodations, travel, home renovations and other goodies. But since Coleman is an elected official they have to keep their largess on the down low.

Other politicians have used campaign funds for legal fees. David Vitter was only allowed to use $40,000 of campaign money to pay his legal bills after he got caught up in the DC Madam prostitution scandal.

Vitter's name showed up in the DC Madame's rolodex. His legal troubles weren't due to anything he said on the campaign trail or anything he did in his official capacity as a legislator. Vitter argued that merely being a Senator made him a target for legal action and that he should therefore be able to spend campaign dollars to defend himself.

The FEC panel that reviewed his request split 3-3 along partisan lines. The compromise was that Vitter could pay a portion of his legal bills from his campaign coffers. 

This decision set a bad precedent because it seems to open the door for any politician who gets sued in office to defend himself or herself using campaign money. A civil or criminal case against an elected official is always going to be relevant to that official's political career. All elected official are subject to heightened scrutiny because they're, well, public officials in public life.

That doesn't mean that campaign contributors should be expected to foot the bill for any legal expenses these people incur for any reason.

Frankly, I don't care whether Coleman does spend his campaign money on his legal defense. The way things are going, he won't need it for another campaign.


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