Sen. Larry Craig's decision to use campaign funds for his criminal defense appears to conflict with federal election law, according to a watchdog group.
The problem for Craig, R-Idaho, is that one of his two legal teams is on the record saying Craig's arrest and conviction for disorderly conduct are "wholly unrelated to the performance of official duties."
Federal law prohibits the use of campaign funds for expenses unrelated to the duties of an officeholder or a candidate.
Stanley Brand and Andrew Herman wrote the Senate Ethics Committee on Sept. 5 that the committee should drop a complaint lodged by Senate Republican leaders against Craig. They argued the Senate has no jurisdiction "over purely personal conduct unrelated to the performance of official Senate duties."
The Ethics Committee is continuing a preliminary inquiry.
On Wednesday, after release of Craig's third-quarter report detailing how he's spent his campaign money, Craig's office said he will continue to tap his $475,000 campaign war chest to pay legal expenses — both for the ethics investigation and for Craig's attempt to overturn his disorderly conduct conviction in Minnesota.
Of about $88,000 in spending between July 1 and Sept. 30, about $60,000 went to two law firms for Craig's legal expenses. Craig has said he will not seek re-election when his term expires in January 2009.
Craig spokesman Dan Whiting told The Associated Press that Craig's spending is within the scope of "well-established case law" on campaign finance and that there was no need to ask the Federal Election Commission or the Ethics Committee for an advisory opinion. Such guidance is often sought by members of Congress.
But Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said Craig "wants to have it both ways."
Ryan said Craig's argument to the Ethics Committee contradicts the position Craig must take to have criminal legal expenses covered by campaign contributions. Initially, Ryan thought Craig could spend campaign funds on his criminal defense, but he changed his view after reading the Sept. 5 letter.
"The simple fact that he himself is denying that it was in any way connected to his official duties would make it seemingly impossible to state the opposite to the FEC," Ryan said.
But another watchdog group said the FEC liberally allows spending on legal fees. "I understand how it seems inconsistent with the letter vs. the FEC's policy," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "But the FEC has routinely allowed members (of Congress) to use their campaign funds for really all legal expenses."
FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said he could not comment directly on Craig's case. But he said the FEC specifically defines what is prohibited personal use of campaign money as any spending "to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal officeholder."
FEC regulations say the commission will determine on a case-by-case basis whether legal expenses are an allowed use.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438