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Legal Fees Eat Into Campaign Coffers

The campaigns of current and former lawmakers paid tens of thousands of dollars last quarter to defend Members involved in ethics inquiries, hire investigative firms and settle lawsuits brought by staffers, according to a Roll Call examination of Federal Election Commission filings.

The reports, which are filed at regular intervals, detail the contributions and expenses of candidates’ campaign committees. Because legal fees can be paid from money remaining in lawmakers’ campaign accounts so long as the work relates to a Member’s duties in office, checks paid to law firms provide a window into which lawmakers are dealing with private lawsuits, government investigations and ethics inquiries, though the picture is often incomplete.

The report filed by the Rush Holt for Congress campaign, for example, shows that a $19,500 “legal settlement” was paid Aug. 17.

The payment ended a lawsuit filed by a former political consultant who alleged he was told “that we’re not hiring black people” when he brought on a group of African-American canvassers to work for the Rush Holt for Congress and Lautenberg for Senate campaigns, according to court filings.

When reached at his campaign headquarters, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said it was a “nuisance suit” brought by a disgruntled former campaign worker.

The campaigns of lawmakers who are being investigated by the House Ethics Committee wrote hefty checks to attorneys during July, August and September.

Since the independent Office of Congressional Ethics earlier this year investigated whether Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) had received improper loans and failed to disclose the transactions on his annual financial disclosure forms, payments from Meeks’ campaign to the law firm Perkins Coie, which is handling the ethics matter, increased from $1,000 during the first quarter to almost $14,000 during the second quarter and $16,000 during the most recent filing period.

The House Ethics Committee in August made the unusual move of announcing that it would continue investigating a $40,000 loan Meeks received in 2007 without forming an investigative subcommittee. The announcement triggered the disclosure of the OCE report, which the lawmaker’s attorneys have called burdensome and costly.

“For the past several months, Rep. Meeks has faced damaging and unsubstantiated press reports that he is under ethics investigation,” Perkins Coie attorneys wrote to the Ethics Committee in June. “He has had to incur great expense to respond to the OCE’s investigation.”

The Meeks campaign had already paid Perkins Coie more than the amount of the original loan under investigation, though the law firm is likely handling smaller legal matters for the campaign that are unrelated to the ethics inquiry.

The Meeks campaign did not respond to messages left at its headquarters.

The campaign to re-elect Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. rose precipitously in the months leading up to the Ethics Committee’s announcement in mid-October that it would resume its probe into whether the Illinois Democrat offered to raise money for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in exchange for the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Payments from Jackson’s re-election account to the law firm Steptoe & Johnson during the third quarter totaled $34,940, up from $10,734 during the previous filing period and none during the first quarter of the year. The committee’s investigation of Jackson’s role in the scandal was on hold while the Justice Department built its case against Blagojevich, who was convicted in June on 17 of 20 corruption charges.

The cost of lawsuits and ethics inquiries can extend past when the investigation concludes — and even after a lawmaker leaves Congress.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) was the subject of an Ethics Committee investigation last year related to a mortgage transaction that allowed her to repurchase her home after it went into foreclosure. Committee investigators also interviewed members of her staff regarding allegations that she had required her Hill employees to volunteer for her campaign.

Though the committee eventually cleared Richardson of wrongdoing in the mortgage matter and the California Democrat has said the inquiry into the staff allegations never developed into a formal investigation, legal debts continue to plague the Richardson for Congress campaign.

The campaign reported it owed $460,011 and had $116,706 in cash on hand at the end of September. More than $125,000 of the debts listed are to law firms.

Richardson’s office declined to comment on the campaign’s legal debt.

Former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned in March 2010, but his campaign account continues to pay legal fees that are likely associated with the Ethics Committee’s recent decision to reauthorize an investigative subcommittee to look into whether the ex-lawmaker sexually harassed a male staff member.

The Massa for Congress account has paid $65,730 to lawyers since the beginning of the year — its only significant expense other than nominal phone bills, payroll processing and the salary of campaign treasurer Beverly Massa, the former lawmaker’s wife.

The campaign account of fellow New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, who resigned his House seat in June following a sexting scandal, also showed sizable legal expenditures.

During the third quarter, Friends of Weiner paid $29,832 to T&M Protection Resources, a firm that provides “seamlessly integrated security and investigative services, including state-of-the-art security technologies, to leading corporations, organizations and private clients,” according to its website. That followed a $75,056 payment to the law firm Baker  Hostetler and nearly $25,000 paid to attorneys at Perkins Coie at the end of June.

Clarification: Nov. 2, 2011

An earlier version of the article misstated the employment status of a plaintiff in a case against the campaign of Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). The plaintiff did canvassing work in support of Holt’s campaign but was paid by another candidate’s committee and an outside group.

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