WASHINGTON - A federal judge this week will confront the surprisingly important fallout from Larry Craig's 2007 arrest in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
Craig's own money might be on the line Wednesday, but other politicians could have a stake in what U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson says about how campaign dollars may be spent.
The Federal Election Commission says that Craig improperly used more than $216,000 to pay attorneys after being charged with disorderly conduct for his men's room behavior. Craig's attorneys insist that he was on official business and therefore could use his campaign treasury, as other legally embattled lawmakers have done.
"It would certainly have application for any member of Congress, when they are trying to determine if they could use campaign funds for a legal defense," Andrew D. Herman, one of Craig's attorneys, said in an interview Monday.
Lawmakers have faced this question in deciding whether to use campaign funds to defend themselves against misconduct accusations. Still, the oral arguments set for a Washington courtroom will be the first face-to-face test for an FEC lawsuit filed against Craig last year. Until now, competing attorneys have fought each other through written filings.
Craig's case arises from his arrest on June 11, 2007, while he was returning to Washington from Idaho. An undercover police officer said he was sexually solicited in the men's room by the then-U.S. senator.
Craig ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct but denied any sexual intentions. He retired at the end of 2008, concluding a congressional career that began in 1981.
Craig now is a principal in New West Strategies, a self-described "strategic advocacy" firm with offices in Eagle and Washington, D.C. The firm's recent clients have included Murray Energy Co. and Western Pacific Timber, Senate lobbying records show.
Craig hired two law firms in a failed effort to withdraw the politically embarrassing guilty plea. Using campaign funds, he paid $139,352 to a Washington-based firm and $77,032 to a Minnesota-based firm.
The FEC concluded that Craig violated the federal law prohibiting conversion of campaign money to private use.
The FEC unanimously approved filing the suit in a 5-0 vote in May 2012, after Craig rebuffed earlier efforts to resolve the issue administratively.
"Craig was arrested for purely personal conduct unrelated to his duties as a federal officeholder," FEC attorneys argued in a legal brief, adding that "nothing about his officials duties caused him to engage in that personal conduct in the airport restroom, or to subsequently plead guilty, or to thereafter try to withdraw that guilty plea."
The judge is not expected to rule Wednesday after the hearing.
It's not uncommon for lawmakers to spend campaign funds on legal defenses. Former Democratic Rep. Gary Condit, for one, used more than $100,000 to pay attorneys during a 2001 police investigation into missing intern Chandra Levy.