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FEC Expected to OK Kolbe Use of Campaign Surplus

The Federal Election Commission today is expected to give former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) the green light to use leftover campaign funds to pay off legal bills he racked up during last year’s House page scandal investigations.

The FEC’s six-person, bipartisan panel will vote on the issue at its morning meeting. Although the agency’s commissioners generally do not disclose exactly how they will vote ahead of scheduled meetings, recommendations by FEC lawyers and a surplus of similar commission rulings in the past strongly suggest that the commission will allow the retired 11-term Congressman to use surplus campaign cash to pay for beating back House ethics committee and Justice Department inquiries.

Kolbe’s campaign had roughly $145,000 in cash as of its most recent disclosure filing in mid-October 2006.

Last fall, Kolbe became entangled in the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who abruptly retired and entered a substance-abuse treatment facility after allegations surfaced that he may have had inappropriate contact with former House pages. On Dec. 8. 2006, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct faulted Kolbe for not being diligent about following up on page claims of inappropriate behavior by Foley. The panel, however, stopped short of accusing Kolbe of rules or ethics violations.

Despite being cleared by the House ethics panel, Kolbe’s involvement in the Foley scandal, as well as a camping trip he took more than a decade ago, is still likely under investigation by federal law enforcement.

Prior to becoming embroiled in the controversy, Kolbe announced he was retiring at the end of 2006.

As previously reported in Roll Call, as the Foley scandal developed, a 1996 trip to the Grand Canyon surfaced that Kolbe — then the only openly gay Republican House Member — took with male pages, National Park Service employees and others.

In his Oct. 27, 2006, request for FEC guidance, Kolbe’s lawyer claimed the mid-summer excursion was part of the Congressman’s job description:

“With respect to allegations published in the press concerning a rafting and camping trip in 1996, involving nine adults and two former pages, the trip was an official Congressional trip to the Grand Canyon in which Congressman Kolbe participated in his capacity as a Member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior,” the letter states. “The official trip was led by two members of the National Park Service. In addition to the two former pages, five adult members of Congressman Kolbe’s district staff, and his sister participated on the trip. Absent Congressman Kolbe’s position as a federal officeholder, this official trip and the participants’ involvement in it would not have occurred.”

But the FEC wanted to see more documents. On Nov. 17, 2006, the agency’s general counsel’s office wrote to Foley’s lawyer asking to provide a “complete description of all facts relevant to the specific transaction or activity with respect to which the request is made.”

In short: show us that the trip was official.

In mid-January, Kolbe provided the FEC with a 10-year-old fax and itinerary for the “Visit of Congressman Jim Kolbe and Staff” from the office of public affairs for the Grand Canyon National Park. Kolbe’s campaign wrote that the documents should substantiate claims that the trip was part of his Congressional duties.

“Obviously, the trip occurred more than 10 years ago and thus available documentation is limited,” William Kelley, treasurer for the Kolbe campaign, wrote. “Available information suggests the purpose of the trip was twofold: to conduct a fire reconnaissance tour and to increase the congressman’s awareness and understanding of conservation issues associated with rafting policies for the Colorado River.”

The itinerary produced by Kolbe’s campaign included a helicopter “fire reconnaissance and return flight” and an 88-mile Colorado River rafting trip.

With the FEC concerns regarding the nature of the trip apparently satisfied, agency lawyers argue in their recommendation to be voted on Thursday that the case is clear: “These legal expenses are for ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with duties of the individual as a holder of federal office.”

Hans von Spakovsky, a Republican-nominated commissioner, said on Wednesday afternoon that the agency said the law is thick with precedent on the lawmakers’ use of campaign funds to pay off certain legal fees. Once that threshold is exceeded, the cases usually are cut and dry.

“It’s squarely within our regulations,” von Spakovsky said. “The statute says you can use campaign funds basically to pay for any expenses connected with your specific duties as a federal office holder.”

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