WASHINGTON, D.C. — Donors to Sen. Norm Coleman’s re-election campaign can rest assured that their money will be spent — just not in the way they might have expected.
Coleman announced this week that he would use campaign funds to pay for legal fees that may result from allegations that he accepted $75,000 in contributions from a prominent Minnesota businessman. On Thursday, campaign spokesman Luke Friedrich confirmed that the campaign was in the process of drafting an official request to the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee to ask permission “to use campaign funds in an appropriate manner.”
The move has sparked debate among lawyers, watchdog groups and donors over when, or even if, a politician should be allowed to use campaign money for a criminal defense.
Under both the Federal Election Commission and Senate Ethics rules, lawmakers are restricted in their use of campaign funds for legal actions, but they are allowed to use the money in certain cases.
Although the commission makes its determination on a case-by-case basis, it basically boils down to this broadly interpreted statement: campaign contributions can’t be used for anything that is considered “personal use.”
What’s ‘personal use’?
The commission defines personal use as “a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or duties as a Federal officeholder.”
Similarly, under the Senate Ethics rules, senators can only spend campaign funds “to defend legal actions arising out of their campaign, election, or performance of their official duties.”
In other words, legal fees resulting from, say, a divorce or DUI charges, would probably not be legally payable through campaign funds.
The Coleman case, however, is a bit more complicated.
In two lawsuits, Nasser Kazeminy is alleged to have funneled the senator money disguised in the form of insurance payments to the company of Coleman’s wife, Laurie. The complaints suggest that Kazeminy wanted to help the senator financially. Around the same time, Coleman was paying for renovations to his home in Minnesota and crashing at Republican operative Jeff Larson’s Washington D.C. townhome to cut back on living expenses, according to a June National Journal article.
But Coleman is not specifically named as a defendant in either lawsuit. For the time being, the case against Coleman is that he allegedly failed to report this money on his personal financial disclosure forms — the same ethics violation that felled Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, earlier this year.
Lawyers familiar with the case believe that Coleman will be able to use campaign funds to finance his defense against allegations that he did not disclose the money, which he is required to do as a senator. If he is deposed in either of the two lawsuits, however, he may have a tougher time receiving permission.
“There is a long line of FEC advisory opinions allowing members of Congress to use campaign funds to pay for legal fees,” said Brett Kappel, a lawyer for Borys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease LLP in Washington, D.C. “I think a lot will depend on what, specifically, he asks for. I would expect they would allow him to use campaign funds associated with the [personal finance forms] investigation, but will have less success with other legal fees.”
Kappel referenced the FEC advisory opinion for Sen. David Vitter, R-La., earlier this year as an applicable precedent. In that case, the commission approved the use of campaign funds to pay for Vitter’s legal fees associated with a Senate Ethics investigation into a prostitution allegation. They did not approve the use of campaign funds to pay legal fees associated with Vitter being called as a witness in a prostitution prosecution.
That Coleman may be allowed to use his campaign funds does not make it any less controversial for some. The group Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington has specifically petitioned the FEC to ban the practice.
“When people donate to a campaign the understanding is that their money is going to be used to help get somebody elected, not to keep them out of jail,” said Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “To say that if you use your office to commit a crime that you get to use this money is ridiculous.”
Calls to Minnesota donors revealed a variety of opinions on the topic.
Robert Tetzloff, a retired CPA from Minneapolis called the campaign’s move “more than appropriate” and “just part of the political process.”
“If he wasn’t a politician, it wouldn’t be an issue,” said Tetzloff, who donated $3,100 to the campaign.
Nick Alworth, an investment banker from Duluth, disagreed. A registered Republican, Alworth contributed $250 to Coleman’s campaign.
“The money that I gave to his campaign was not for a criminal defense,” Alworth said. “I don’t agree with that.”
The campaign plans to send its request to the FEC and the Senate Ethics Committee either today or during the first part of next week, according to Friedrich. Once received, the FEC has 60 days to issue an opinion.
Cynthia Dizikes is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., who covers politics and policy issues.