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Members’ Legal Bills Continued to Mount in ’06

As 2006 came to a close, lawyers’ bills continued to pile high for a half-dozen or more House Members widely named in ongoing criminal investigations.

Year-end fundraising reports, which were due to be filed with the Federal Election Commission by Wednesday, showed that at least five Members previously cited as subjects of investigations wrote checks or listed debts to firms with substantial criminal defense practices worth a combined total of more than $200,000 from Nov. 28 to Dec. 31.

That’s in addition to ex-Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who received the FEC’s blessing last week to use leftover campaign cash to fend off Justice Department scrutiny.

The campaign of former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who currently is under investigation by federal law enforcement for allegedly inappropriate contact with Congressional pages, paid the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder nearly $50,000 in mid-December. According to the firm’s Web site, its lawyers specialize in cases “where the government is adversarial to our clients.”

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who was banished from the ethics panel in 2006 amid a federal probe into earmarks he steered to his home state, doled out $70,000 during the reporting period to Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, an area law firm specializing in white-collar criminal defense. Mollohan reported that he owes the same firm another $20,000.

In late October 2006, media reports indicated the U.S. attorney’s office was looking into Rep. Rick Renzi’s (R-Ariz.) alleged involvement in an illegal property swap and declined to comment. At the time, Renzi declined comment and directed reporters to his attorney, Grant Woods.

On Dec. 6, Renzi’s campaign wrote a check to Woods for $10,000.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, an international firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, received about $75,000 in December from two prominent House Members: California Reps. Jane Harman (D) and Jerry Lewis (R). Harman, whose office declined comment for this story, paid the firm $25,000 on Dec. 11. About six weeks earlier, Time magazine reported that Harman allegedly asked a lobbyist for help in securing the top spot on the House Intelligence panel.

As previously reported in Roll Call, Lewis had paid Gibson Dunn the bulk of $820,000 in legal bills he accrued during in a four-month period last year. Lewis’s disclosure late Wednesday now brings his total legal spending for the year to roughly $870,000.

Although some lawmakers start digging into their campaign coffers after investigators arrive on the scene, the largest year-end legal payment — more than $115,000 — was paid to a law firm by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) to dig up dirt on himself, just to make sure no legal questions went unanswered in an election year when Republicans nationwide were dogged by claims of ethics lapses.

“We worked to ensure that his opponents could not distort or misrepresent his nearly two-decade record of public service,” said spokesman Andy Bloom.

As an FEC decision confirmed last week, Senators and House Members may raid their campaign war chests to pay legal fees when the feds come snooping, so long as it’s somehow tied to their official duties. Agency lawyers have argued in the past that it is OK to use excess campaign funds, provided that “legal expenses are for ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with duties of the individual as a holder of federal office.”

“Members of Congress can use their campaign funds that are associated with their campaign activities, as well as their duties as office holders,” said Michael Toner, a Republican-nominated FEC commissioner. “However, the FEC does require that their be a clear nexis between the legal expense and the Members’ campaign or office-holder activities.”

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