Larry Craig

Stay or go, Craig can use campaign cash

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's decision to remain in the Senate while he fights to clear his name probably will not affect his ability to use campaign funds to pay for his legal defense.

Craig is permitted by federal law to use campaign funds for any purpose, with one exception: personal expenses. He can retain and spend excess funds whether he remains in office or leaves the Senate.

The financial help may be important for Craig. According to his personal financial reports, which all members of Congress must file, Craig's $165,200 Senate salary is his main source of income, and his major assets include a Senate Credit Union account worth $50,000 to $100,000 and a federal retirement account valued from $250,000 to $500,000. He is one of the Senate's least wealthy members.

Craig has about $500,000 in his campaign account, though, for a 2008 re-election campaign he now says he will not make. He can spend that money on his lawyers and other expenses, as long as the expenses are connected to his conduct, according to Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog on federal campaign finance law.

"If the incident that gives rise to legal expenses occurs in the line of duty, then you're allowed to use campaign funds," said Ryan.

Former Rep. Mark Foley, for example, used campaign funds for legal counsel who advised him about sexually explicit electronic messages he sent to congressional pages.

Ryan said he wasn't offering a legal opinion on Craig's specific case, but said Craig's lawyers could make a sound argument that Craig's fight to overturn his guilty plea in Minnesota is an allowed use of campaign funds. Craig was traveling from Idaho to Washington, D.C., on June 11 when he stopped in Minneapolis to change planes. That night, he cast a vote in the Senate in support of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"He was traveling to D.C. to work," said Ryan.

"A credible argument could certainly be made by his attorneys that but for his need to be in Washington to vote he would not have been in the airport."

The Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, has issued advisory opinions authorizing legal expenses for current and former candidates, including former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz, who retired from Congress early this year. 

In January, the FEC told Kolbe he could use campaign funds for legal expenses related to a U.S. Justice Department inquiry regarding Kolbe's knowledge of former Rep. Foley's interactions with congressional pages, and the facts surrounding an official trip to the Grand Canyon attended by Kolbe and two former House pages, among others.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438