House incumbents spent hundreds of thousands in legal fees to head off crises
WASHINGTON -- At least six House Republicans combined to spend more than $325,000 in campaign funds in the most recent quarter alone on legal or crisis management fees related to brewing scandals that have wended their way into the court of public opinion -- and, in some cases, courtrooms.
New York Rep. Chris Collins, whom federal authorities indicted Aug. 8 on 10 counts related to insider trading and securities fraud, shelled out $30,980.25 from his campaign account to the D.C.-based law firm BakerHostetler just three days later.
He made additional payments of $7,242.08 and $1,925 to the firm on Sept. 8, bringing his total legal bill to $40,147.33 for the third filing quarter that ended Sept. 30, according to his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission.
Collins raised just $33,000 in the roughly two months that his campaign committee was actively fundraising last quarter. That means he spent $7,000 more on legal fees than he collected in total donations during the three-month period.
In Southern California, Rep. Duncan Hunter, who, along with his wife, is also under federal indictment for misusing more than $250,000 of campaign money on personal items and trips, spent $36,225.21 on legal representation and consulting in the third quarter, per his FEC report.
He had previously distributed more than $600,000 to at least eight different law firms this cycle.
Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona spent a whopping $184,655.05 from July through September on legal fees -- more than any other House candidate last quarter -- a review of the FEC’s disbursement database yielded.
Reps. Mia Love of Utah and Scott Taylor of Virginia are each swimming in their own simmering campaign-related scandals. Combined, they spent more than $28,000 on legal fees and consulting in the third quarter, according to Love and Taylor’s FEC reports.
And Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan -- who’s bidding to lead House Republicans next year and is not in any legal trouble, per se -- dished out $38,000 to an Alexandria, Va., public relations shop to vehemently deny and head off public accusations that he knew a wrestling team doctor at Ohio State University was molesting players the congressman coached in the 1980s, Cleveland.com reported.
Collins, Hunter, Taylor and Love have each seen their leads in polls tighten against their Democratic opponents, though Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales still favors each of them for re-election
Collins’ race against Democrat Nate McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor, in New York’s 27th District is rated Leans Republican. A recent Spectrum News/Siena College poll found the incumbent ahead by 3 points -- he won re-election two years ago by 34 points.
Love also finds herself in a Leans Republican race against Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th District. A recent Salt Lake Tribune poll showed the race tied.
Hunter’s race against former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar is rated Likely Republican in spite of the five-term incumbent’s looming court battle. Recent polls have put Hunter’s read at anywhere from 2 to 15 points.
And Taylor’s bid for a second term against Democratic Navy veteran Elaine Luria is rated Tilts Republican. Recent polls have shown his lead in the single digits -- he won by 23 points two years ago.
Jordan and Schweikert are running in safe Republican districts in Ohio and Arizona, respectively.
The legal parameters for using campaign money on legal expenses are not as dicey as they may seem. Candidates cannot use campaign cash for personal legal expenditures -- basically, legal questions unrelated to their status as a candidate.
“If you get a DUI, for example, you can’t use campaign funds to pay for your attorneys,” said Brendan Fischer, a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center.
But the FEC has allowed candidates to use campaign money “to cover public relations aspects” arising from personal legal issues, Fischer said.
That caveat would seem to most benefit Collins, who was indicted for sharing insider trading tips with multiple family members regarding an Australian biotech company in which he had a majority stake.
Collins cannot use campaign cash for his legal defense strategy. But the FEC does allow him to dip into his campaign funds to pay his lawyers for, say, strategic advice on how he can spin his indictment and dismiss his legal woes to voters on the campaign trail.
On the other hand, Love’s campaign came under fire after it was forced to re-designate roughly $370,000 in donations raised for the primary and made between the GOP nominating convention in April and the June primary, even though Love knew she was unlikely to have a primary challenger.
The Utah Republican was free to use campaign money to pay her legal consulting fees for that episode because it directly related to her compliance with campaign finance laws.
In Hunter’s case, his use of campaign funds for attorney fees is likely legal and permitted because it should pass the FEC’s so-called irrespective test. The test defines personal use as any use of funds from a candidate’s campaign account to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense that would exist even if the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as an official in federal office did not exist.
In this case, that would mean Hunter could use campaign funds to defend himself against the allegations of misusing campaign funds precisely because he has a campaign at all. Reread that again if you need to.
Schweikert is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for alleged illegal payments to his former chief of staff, Oliver Schwab.
He, too, is covered by the FEC’s irrespective test to spend however much he pleases from his campaign on legal fees arising from that investigation.
It’s worth noting that it is common for campaigns -- especially for senators and high-profile fundraisers like House leaders -- to consult law firms regularly and incur thousands of dollars in legal expenses each quarter, even if they’re not staring down any legal barrels.
Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, for instance, have not faced any pressing campaign finance or personal scandals.
But both collectively paid Democratic law firm Perkins Coie thousands of dollars in the third quarter for legal consulting, according to their FEC filings.
And the Speaker Paul D. Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund paid out nearly $70,000 in legal fees to two law firms, Jones Day and Clark Hill, in the third quarter. CLF has not faced any serious scrutiny about its fundraising efforts this cycle.
“Some candidates are more aggressive and want to find ways to push the legal envelope,” Fischer said, indicating that some campaigns with savvy legal advisers work closely -- but within the legal boundaries -- with super PACs and dark money groups.
But that kind of fundraising is a cost-benefit analysis each candidate must make.
“All of that can rack up legal fees,” Fischer said.