On Monday four years and 364 days after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport Larry Craig became a defendant in a civil case.
This time, the Federal Election Commission sued the former senator, his campaign committee and Kaye ORiordan, his former campaign treasurer. According to the FEC, some $217,000 was siphoned from campaign coffers into Craigs criminal defense; the agency wants Craig to pay back the money, and is seeking fines for Craig and ORiordan.
Whether Craig violated campaign finance rules is a matter for a Washington. D.C., court to decide. But if the FECs claims are correct, Craig and his campaign team certainly violated their donors trust.
Say what you will about the evils of money in politics, but the arrangement is supposed to go like this. A donor be it an individual supporter, a special-interest group or a well-heeled political action committee contributes to a candidate believing the money will support a political campaign. Benefactors dont expect their money to help their chosen politico make a mortgage payment, spring for a vacation or hire a defense attorney.
The issue quickly gets murky. The FEC isnt going after campaign dollars spent on Craigs unsuccessful appeal to the Senate Ethics Committee; those expenditures are allowed. But according to the FEC, Craigs criminal defense costs stemming from his 2007 arrest and guilty plea on a disorderly conduct charge do not fall within the normal scope of congressional duties. In other words, they are expenditures Craig would have incurred whether he served in office or not.
The FECs allegations are just allegations. However, these allegations are in character with what Idahoans saw unfold during Craigs final 16 months in office: self-preservation and duplicity.
Days after his airport bathroom bust became a public spectacle and easy material for late-night comics Craig held forth at a news conference, telling Idahoans of his intent to resign. Craig reneged weeks later, serving out his term partly so he could plead his case before the Ethics Committee.
Craig openly misled the people who elected him to office. So when a federal agency accuses Craig of a head fake of another sort appropriating campaign dollars to satisfy his own personal ends the allegation doesnt exactly seem a stretch.
A saga like this can have a chilling effect on would-be campaign donors especially the small players, for whom a $50 or $100 check represents a significant financial commitment. Do you really want to give money to a candidate if those donations might morph into a legal defense fund? At this point in his post-Senate life, such concerns may matter little to Craig.
But should the FEC complaint hold up in court, it will give people one more reason to be cynical about money in politics.
And it will give Idahoans one more reason to be cynical about Larry Craig.
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