Paying The Piper With Contributors' Cash
By Dwight L. Morris
Just how is House Speaker Newt Gingrich going to pay that $300,000 fine? The House ethics committee has formally recommended that Gingrich be penalized for illegally using donations from tax-exempt organizations to fund a patently political college course and then lying to the panel about his actions. Where will the money come from? For Gingrich, the solution appears to be one or two more nights of rubber chicken.
Almost before the committee had finished outlining its case against him, Gingrich's spokeswoman, Lauren Maddox, announced that there was precedent for paying the fine with campaign funds (she quickly pointed out that no firm decision had yet been made on the payment). Redefining chutzpah, the speaker appeared ready to pay for his ethical lapses with money collected from the people controlling the tax-exempt foundations that funded his course in the first place.
Although Democrats both on and off the ethics committee immediately began crying foul, few seem to have noticed that the speaker's plan has already been in effect for two years. Since Jan. 1, 1995, Gingrich has spent $690,998 of his campaign funds to cover legal bills associated with the ethics case, nearly all of which was rung up by Jan W. Baran of Wiley, Rein & Fielding before he quit amidst suggestions that Gingrich lied to him.
Gingrich knew he was on solid ground in paying for his legal expenses with campaign funds; he had done so before. During the 1990 election cycle, Gingrich, then minority whip, spent $136,967 to battle an ethics complaint accusing him of improperly forming a partnership financed by political supporters to promote a book he co-wrote. Chalking those allegations up to political payback for leading the charge to oust Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), the ethics committee dismissed the charges.
In fact, no one questioned Gingrich's latest diversion of campaign funds to his legal defense simply because it has become commonplace. The speaker is the latest in a growing series of indicted or ethically challenged House incumbents who have paid their lawyers from funds donated to help them win re-election.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.)
While federal law prohibits members of Congress from using campaign funds in ways that are purely for personal benefit and federal prosecutors were busy proving that Rostenkowski had done just that no one seemed bothered that he paid Katten, Muchin, Zavis & Dombroff nearly $179,000 in less than three years, hoping that the Washington, D.C. law firm could keep him out of jail. In 1992 when federal prosecutors began exploring his embezzlement of campaign funds, his use of federal employees to perform personal tasks, and his habit of tapping his taxpayer-funded House office account to pay for expensive gifts he paid another Washington firm, Brand & Lowell, nearly $172,000. Two other law firms collected at least $100,000 from Rostenkowski's campaign during this period, while four others received payments totaling at least $50,000.
Rostenkowski's campaign treasury also paid more than $106,000 to cover the legal bills of Virginia Fletcher, an administrative assistant who handled bookkeeping in his Washington congressional office. More than $62,000 went to cover the legal bills incurred by the bookkeeper for the district office in Chicago, and more than $51,000 paid lawyers representing an old political crony, whose wife was paid $79,000 for congressional work that other staffers said she never performed.
Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.)
Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.)
Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.)
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)
As is often the case with modern campaign finance, the real crime is what's perfectly legal.
This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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