A federal judge in Washington today expressed doubt that former U.S. Senator Larry Craig properly used campaign money when he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal legal expenses following his arrest in 2007 in a sex sting at an airport in Minnesota.
The Federal Election Commission in June 2012 sued Craig in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, saying the $200,000 he spent was not an "ordinary and necessary" expense incurred as part of his duty as a senator. The FEC wants Craig to repay the money and also pay a penalty. Craig was a senator from Idaho from 1991 to 2009.
Andrew Herman of Washington's Brand Law Group, representing Craig and his U.S. senate campaign committee, argued today at a hearing in the case that Craig had authority to use privately raised campaign funds in connection to expenses that arose while he was on official travel as a senator.
Herman rooted his argument in a January 2007 election commission advisory opinion that addressed a retired congressman's use of funds to pay legal bills associated with a U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation. Herman said the FEC "has buyer's remorse with this opinion." Jackson seemed incredulous, however.
The FEC advisory opinion, Jackson said, didn't conclude that campaign funds can cover all expenses associated with official, congressionally sponsored travel. The congressman in the FEC advisory opinion, Jim Kolbe, was allowed to use campaign money to respond to a DOJ inquiry about a trip to the Grand Canyon. But the commission opinion, Jackson said, didn't give Kolbe unchecked, free use campaign money on everything that happened during the trip.
In the FEC opinion, the judge noted, the commission said that Kolbe "may not use campaign funds to pay for…legal expenses in the preliminary inquiry regarding other allegations, if any, that do not concern the candidate's campaign activities or duties as a federal officeholder."
Craig wasn't charged with bribery or another public corruption offense, Jackson said in court. Craig was charged with conduct that had nothing to do with whether or not he was a senator, the judge said.
In the summer of 2007, Craig was arrested for conduct in a public restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The charge: disorderly conduct. An undercover officer said Craig indicated with his feet that he was interested in sex. Craig pleaded guilty that same year to the misdemeanor charge.
Craig later tried to withdraw from the plea, hiring Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Minnesota's Kelly & Jacobson to fight for him. A state court rejected the appeal in 2008. (Between July 2007 and October 2008, Craig paid Sutherland at least $139,952 and spent $77,032 on Kelly's services.)
Craig said in a letter in September 2007 that his conviction stemmed from "purely personal conduct unrelated to the performance of his official Senate duties." Jackson today said "that's an admission that's problematic for him."
In court papers, "Senator Craig’s official, constitutionally-mandated travel satisfies the FEC’s standard for sanctioning the use of campaign funds for his legal expenses."
Jackson didn't immediately rule this morning. Craig was not in court.