When news broke last month on the Department of Justice’s plans to indict Sen. Robert Menendez on criminal corruption charges, the New Jersey Democrat signaled he would fight.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Easy for him to say. He has the deep pockets necessary to hire the best criminal defense team in the business. Or, I should say, his campaign war chest has the resources to pay those high priced attorneys. Over the course of his extended political career, he has raised over $39 million in campaign contributions, so he is sure to have the funds necessary to pay his team of lawyers.
The test of Menendez’s will really begins now, as a federal indictment charges the senator with 14 counts, including bribery, conspiracy, and wire fraud.
It’s certain to add considerably to the massive legal bills Menendez has already racked up — and that his political supporters are helping pay off. From early 2013 through the end of 2014, Menendez reported spending more than $1.2 million on legal fees, using a combination of cash from his campaign committee and a political action committee, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal documents.
A special irony in this case is that the $750,000 contributions made to Senator Menendez’s campaign fund by his indicted co-conspirator, Dr. Solomon Melgan, can and likely will be used to pay for the Senator’s legal defense.
New fund filings are due this month that will no doubt reflect additional large payments to Menendez’s legal team, which now includes prominent white collar defense lawyer Abbe Lowell of the prominent national law firm, Chadbourne & Parke LLP.
The bulk of Menendez’s legal fees to date have been paid to other firms, including Perkins Coie LLP, to whom Menendez’s legal fund and political committees paid more than $560,000 during 2013 and 2014.
In addition, Menendez’s funds have paid McDermott Will & Emery LLP roughly $780,000 over the same period, nearly $56,000 to Brand Law Group, and about $157,000 to Coburn and Greenbaum PLLP.
The use of campaign funds to pay legal fees in a criminal case is just plain wrong. It should be illegal under federal election laws, but it isn’t.
But, under the current laws, the practice or paying criminal defense lawyers out of campaign funds is common. For example, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich used his campaign war chest as a criminal defense fund to pay his legal team to defend him against federal political corruption charges, including his attempt to sell Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.
Gov. Blagojevich’s campaign fund has spent $2.7 million to date on his defense despite the fact that he was not running for anything other than his political life and from an extended prison term. The money wasn’t spent on media buys, campaign staff, or yard signs for which it was intended, but on the team of lawyers trying to keep him out of the slammer.
Other misuses of campaign funds are legion. For example, when Jessie Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for criminal misuse of $750,000 of his campaign war chest, the national media spotlight focused once again on the use and misuse of vast fortunes politicians accumulate to run for office. Everyone was asking, what’s legal and illegal in campaign spending?
During the proceedings in federal court in Washington, we learned that it is illegal to use money in an election campaign fund to buy a $45,000 Rolex watch, stuffed elk heads, or an Eddie Van Halen guitar. As a teenager might blurt out, “Well, duh‼”
But, it’s not illegal to use those same funds to pay criminal defense lawyers hefty fees.
In short, political campaign spending is a scandalous mess that gets progressively worse with every passing election cycle. Now, I don’t mean just the epidemic of illegal pay-to-play politics that has plagued politics at all levels for decades.
I mean the antiquated rules that govern the use of campaign contributions and allow politicians to use those funds virtually as they please. When a politician raises funds for an election campaign, those dollars should be used only in furtherance of that campaign for that office.
Under the current rules, campaign war chests can and are used for so many other unrelated purposes. You name it, campaign war chests have paid for it.
We deserve simple, sensible restrictions on campaign spending. Maybe the system colleges and universities development offices use would be a useful model for political contributions.
For example, a million dollar contribution might be made to the university for development of the geological sciences department, or to further careers in public service, or to expand the study of gender-related issues. Those restricted gifts cannot legally be used for any other purpose… can’t be used to support general operating funds, or build a new student center, or build an addition to the school’s library. They are limited to the use set by the donor.
The legal principle is called “donor intent.” It’s a very simple concept. When I make a contribution to a candidate’s campaign for office, I intend for those dollars to be used for ordinary and necessary expenses related to the campaign for that office and that campaign alone.
My contribution isn’t intended to allow the candidate to hire his wife or mistress as a “campaign consultant” (2008 Democratic presidential primary candidate John Edwards). It’s not meant to be used for a campaign for some other office down the road (Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign fund rolled over into her presidential bid). I don’t want my contribution to be siphoned off to some other candidate or to pay off the campaign debt of some other political crony (Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan).
But, first and foremost, I don’t want my campaign contribution used as a criminal defense fund in a political corruption trial. In short, one might say, “The money I donated to the campaign was intended to get you elected, not to keep you out of the slammer when you violated your oath of office and the public trust by engaging in political corruption.”
Finally, any funds remaining in the campaign coffers after the election should be refunded to contributors on a pro rata basis or donated to the candidate’s favorite charity (other than himself). The common practice of rolling over the campaign fund into a re-election campaign (maybe I think you did a poor job in your first term) or a campaign for higher office (maybe I don’t think you’re qualified for that other office) should be strictly prohibited.
These rules should be clearly prescribed by our campaign laws. Of course, I realize that’s not likely since the same incumbents who benefit from the current system would have to amend campaign funding laws to deny themselves the same unfair advantage they treasure.
This simple proposal amounts to campaign funding à la carte… funding one race for one office at a time: no huge campaign war chests to finance in perpetuity a public servant’s life-long career in politics; no diversion of funds to boost other candidates’ campaigns; no conversion of campaign war chests to criminal defense funds; and, of course, no more stuffed elk heads to adorn a million dollar Washington mansion.