Defending a 'Wide Stance' Requires a Thick Wallet

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Add this to the list of indignities Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has suffered since getting busted in an airport restroom last June: He now has to pay his legal dream team out of his own pocket.

Per the Senate ethics committee's Feb. 13 "admonition" of him for his guilty plea to disorderly conduct charges, Craig has not paid any of his top-flight lawyers from his campaign committee since early February. The last legal payment from Craig for U.S. Senate, in the form of an $80,695 check, went out on Feb. 3 to Billy Martin's firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

According to reports his campaign committee filed with the Federal Election Commission, that put Craig's total legal tab at more than $407,000 since he was arrested June 11 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in an undercover sting designed to root out lewd behavior.

But Craig never sought permission from the ethics committee to use his campaign funds to pay Martin and Stan Brand, the lawyer who helped him handle the matter before the committee.

The panel's three-page letter concluded that Craig had engaged in "improper conduct which has reflected discreditably on the Senate." It warned him against any future legal expenses because the senator's arrest may not have "occurred in connection with your official duties."

Craig's office declined to comment. Brand told this column yesterday that Craig is now in "full compliance" with the ethics admonishment. "I'm paid in full," Brand added, noting that his work for Craig concluded once the committee finished its deliberations.

But Craig is continuing his appeal of a Minnesota court ruling that upheld his guilty plea, and he is continuing to rack up legal bills with Martin's firm. He is left to fight this uphill battle with his own finances -- which are incredibly meager.

Aside from a pair of retirement accounts, Craig has just one other account to draw from. It's with the Senate's federal credit union and contains between $50,000 and $100,000, according to a financial disclosure report filed with the Senate.

He also could tap his wife's personal account with the credit union -- worth somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000 -- but we're guessing Mrs. Craig may not be willing to foot the legal bills for her husband's "wide stance."

PAC Men and Women

Leadership PACs aren't just for leaders anymore.

In a first-of-its-kind study, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has compiled a nearly comprehensive list of political action committees associated with lawmakers.

More than half the House now boasts of having a PAC, in addition to the campaign committees that members use to actually run for office.

They were once known as leadership PACs because only party leaders -- or those aspiring to be leaders -- had PACs. While the election accounts are limited to $4,600 per donor for each two-year election cycle, PACs can take in $10,000 from each contributor over that same time. The money is doled out to other candidates to build goodwill for a candidate's personal ambitions.

At least 231 members of the House have PACs, according to the CREW study. Another 68 lawmakers refused to divulge to the liberal-leaning watchdog whether they had one. There's no official requirement that members disclose their affiliations with the committees.

Many have names that can be turned into easily identifiable acronyms -- think Rely On Your Beliefs Fund, or RoyB Fund, for Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) -- but some PACs are just oddly named, and CREW couldn't be sure they were associated with a lawmaker.

And there's no partisan divide on PACs. At least 112 Democrats and 119 Republicans have them.

Empty Bags

Who doesn't love a good gift bag? They are one of the best reasons to go to the late-night after-parties that follow Saturday's annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, besides chatting up tipsy celebrities and politicians.

But this year, lots of partygoers will be looking the gift horse in the mouth. They have no choice. Gift bags are officially taboo for members of Congress and their staffs who, under strict new ethics rules, cannot take even the smallest item from swag bags.

And as long as the sponsors of the after-parties employ lobbyists, they may not give gift bags to the politicians and congressional aides who, until last year, loved sauntering (or staggering) home with their goody bags.

Bloomberg News, which for years has hosted the hottest ticket on the after-party circuit, is known for giving big, comfy slippers to its weary, late-night revelers, along with latte mugs and other trinkets. For years, many a big-name guest has been spotted hailing a cab, shoes in hand, puffy slippers on feet.

This year, lots of those VIP guests will be going home in the shoes they wore.

Bloomberg, which, like most news organizations (including The Washington Post Co.) employs lobbyists, has nixed the gift bag as too risky. (Corporations actually face criminal penalties if they knowingly give gifts of any value to a member of Congress or his staff.)

"We love gift bags," says Tammy Haddad, a veteran television producer who is a consultant to Bloomberg. "There are thousands of people padding around Washington in Bloomberg after-party slippers. But this year we want to abide by the new ethics law."

From a glance at his latest campaign financial disclosure report, it looks as if Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has finally hit rock bottom. Because, according to the report, Rehberg, a millionaire who sleeps on the sofa in his congressional office and showers in the House gym, spent a cold February night at the Tune Inn, which, while it offers plenty of cheap draft beer and greasy food, doesn't rent rooms -- not even by the hour.

Rehberg's reelection campaign report lists a nearly $300 expenditure on Feb. 25 for "lodging" at the Tune Inn, a storied dive bar on Capitol Hill whose walls are covered with mounted deer heads (and a few deer butts).

An inn, the Tune Inn is not. But we called just to be sure they didn't have rooms hidden away someplace. Bartender Matt Manley assured us the bar does not offer any type of lodging, at least not really.

"There's a cot in the basement," Manley explained. "But usually people just pass out on it."

We had to wonder if Rehberg helped himself to the cot, given his past cavorting on congressional trips. (In Kazakhstan in 2004, Rehberg had several shots of vodka before he fell off a horse, was trampled by another and broke at least one rib.) But it did seem odd, given his tremendous personal wealth: He's the 11th-richest member of the House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As Kevin O'Brien, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said, "You'd think being worth 50 million bucks and making 170 grand a year, a guy could find somewhere other than a saloon to sleep." (Rehberg faces a challenge this year from a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel.)

But Rehberg spokesman Bridger Pierce says the congressman didn't sleep on the cot at the Tune Inn, or in a booth, or anywhere else there. The campaign just mistakenly listed the Feb. 25 Tune Inn expenditure under "lodging" instead of "food," Pierce explained. He described the event as a "voter appreciation/campaign meeting."

It must have been a pretty big group, and people must have been really thirsty and hungry. Racking up a $300 tab at the Tune Inn takes serious effort. A cheeseburger costs $7 and a Busch draft beer goes for $3.50. So, do the math.

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