Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), chairman of the House ethics committee, used $4,000 in campaign contributions to pay lawyers who defended him in Montgomery County Circuit Court on drunk driving charges, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Stokes, who was found guilty Monday of driving under the influence of alcohol, listed payments in his most recent FEC report of $2,500 to Washington lawyer R. Kenneth Mundy and $1,500 to Rockville lawyer Thomas L. Heeney. Both represented him in court on the traffic charges. The FEC report was first noted by a reporter for the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator.
Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives prohibit a congressman from using campaign funds for "personal use" and for expenditures "not attributable to bona fide campaign purposes." But Stokes said yesterday that legal fees fall under "an exception" to the rules approved by the House ethics committee in 1979, before he was chairman.
"There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with" using campaign funds for such legal expenses, Stokes asserted. "It has been done by many other members of Congress and and it is perfectly legitimate under precedents established by the ethics committee dating back to 1979."
Stokes said that in 1979, the ethics committee issued an advisory opinion saying that a representative involved in the Koreagate case could use campaign funds to help defray legal expenses.
"The committee has followed those precedents ever since," Stokes said in a telephone interview, adding that the precedent had been applied in cases involving representatives who were defendants in the Abscam bribery cases and others arising since 1979.
In this instance, Stokes used the funds to pay lawyers defending him against traffic charges that resulted from an incident at 2:15 a.m. March 25, when police stopped Stokes in Wheaton after he drove the wrong way on Randolph Road and went through a red light. Stokes maintained he was not intoxicated but was tired, hungry and suffering from an allergy at the time of his arrest.
A jury acquitted him of the most serious charge--driving while intoxicated--but convicted him of driving under the influence of alcohol and of running a red light.
Stokes cited two reasons he believes the 1979 ethics ruling is applicable to his case.
"I was returning to my home from the Congress where I just completed the official business of the House," Stokes said of the time when he was stopped by police.
Stokes also said that his conviction on the more serious driving-while-intoxicated charge would have triggered an inquiry by the House ethics committee and possible disciplinary action.
Stan Brand, counsel to the House, said he also believes the ethics committee would find the use of campaign funds to pay Stokes' current legal fees "proper." Brand also cited the 1979 case before the committee.
"You can argue that the congressman's ability to exonerate himself through the legal process is going to be important in some respect to his ability to get reelected," Brand said. Therefore, Brand said, the legal fees could be considered a "legitimate campaign expenditure."