Illegal defense

Center finds violations, missing records regarding legal expense funds

By

 Updated:

The Center's analysis of the legal expense funds maintained by eight sitting members of Congress revealed that in addition to DeLay and Reid, those receiving questionable donations included Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Those five legislators collectively received donations from 12 lobbyists, the Center found.

Legal expense funds are designed to defray costs related to a variety of proceedings, including ethics, civil and criminal matters. Both House and Senate rules forbid any "contribution or other payment by a registered lobbyist or an agent of a foreign principal to a legal expense fund." This prohibition is similar to one that bars lobbyists and foreign agents from paying for lawmakers' travel.

DeLay faces a possible investigation by the House ethics committee over allegations that embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff paid for some of the Texas Republican's travel, including a golf outing to Scotland. Abramoff is currently under criminal and congressional investigation for allegedly bilking six American Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars, and in the process possibly circumventing lobbying disclosure laws.

The Center found that five registered lobbyists and one lobbying firm contributed a total of $8,000 to DeLay's legal defense fund, although $3,500 of that was later returned. DeLay established this fund—which has since raised slightly more than $1 million— on June 22, 2000, after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit accusing him of extorting campaign contributions. That suit was settled in 2001.

McDermott received questionable donations to his legal defense fund from the second-highest number of contributors: four lobbyists gave a total of $2,500. Both Hatch and Reid, a Nevada Democrat, received one donation of $3,000 each, and Hyde accepted one of $1,000.

In all, the Center found, these five congressmen accepted $17,500 from lobbyists who together personally represented at least 350 companies.

In 2004, Public Citizen first challenged DeLay's legal expense fund for accepting four lobbyists' donations, including one from Vin Weber, who previously served as a Republican representative from Minnesota, and another from a lobbying firm. Following these allegations by the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, DeLay refunded a $1,000 contribution to Weber and $2,500 donated by the firm of Locke Liddell & Sapp which is registered to lobby. At the time, DeLay fund trustee Brent Perry told the Houston Chronicle that these donations were "a mistake" and "shouldn't have been accepted."

But the Center found that DeLay's fund accepted two more donations from individual lobbyists, bringing the total of questionable donations to six.

"I can say with a great degree of clarity that all donations that are not in compliance will be returned," Delay spokesperson Kevin Madden told the Center. In addition to looking into these contributions, Madden said that DeLay's fund is currently having an audit done by an independent firm as a proactive effort and that will be completed "very shortly."

So far, only the donations from Locke Liddell & Sapp and from Weber have been returned, according to DeLay's legal expense fund records. McDermott's spokesman Mike DeCesare said yesterday that following the Center's investigation, the fund will be returning three of the four donations in question and is investigating the other one. "The best thing we can do is be aggressive about following the rules," he told the Center. "The people that deal with the fund are pulling the checks in question, and if it turns out that we should not have taken those donations, we will return them."

Meanwhile, Tessa Hafen, spokesperson for Reid, said his office has recently "talked to the Senate Ethics Committee to see if there was a violation and has asked them how proceed." She explained that the contribution may have been overlooked by Reid's fund because the donor had only recently become a lobbyist. "Sen. Reid and Ben Barnes have been friends for 30 years and no one on staff had realized that he had registered as a lobbyist just months earlier," she said.

It is unknown whether these apparent rule violations are under investigation, because all such inquiries are kept confidential by the ethics committees in both houses of Congress. While the Senate Office of Public Records and the House Legislative Resource Center collect disclosure forms filed by all legal defense funds, the responsibility for enforcing issues of compliance rests with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

There are currently eight sitting members of Congress with legal expense funds, three of whom appear to be in compliance with this rule. The Center could not identify any donations to the legal expense funds of Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., or Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., as having come from lobbyists or foreign agents.

While the Center's study focused on the donations listed on available disclosure forms, it could not account for potential violations from a significant number of missing documents. Congressional records offices currently are missing 20 required quarterly legal expense disclosure forms—cumulatively five years' worth—for Hatch. Likewise, Brown's fund appears not to have filed five reports, while Reid's records are missing three reports.

"What must have happened is that they went to the wrong address," said Sen. Hatch's fund trustee Kevin W. Bates about the 20 missing filings. Bates contends that efforts were made initially to file the reports but that they may not have arrived for some unknown reason. He told the Center that he plans to send them to the Senate Office of Public Records as soon as possible.

Officials at congressional records offices say that these required forms may have never been filed with their offices. The only repercussions for not filing could come from the corresponding congressional ethics committees, if there are any consequences at all.

Rules authorizing the establishment of congressional legal expense funds were adopted in 1980 following the Abscam scandal, an FBI sting operation targeting House and Senate members that resulted in bribery and conspiracy convictions. These trust funds were created to allow members, officers and employees of the House and Senate to raise money to defray the costs of legal proceedings that result from their congressional service.

Unlike donations to political campaigns, details of which are maintained by the Federal Election Commission and accessible online, the transactions of congressional legal expense funds are only available for viewing at the records offices in Congress.

While these donations from registered lobbyists to legal expense funds appear to violate congressional rules because they are considered to be personal gifts, similar donations to the campaigns of federal lawmakers are both legal and common. In May 2004, a Center study found that more than 1,300 registered lobbyists had given $1.8 million to President George W. Bush since 1998. Meanwhile, the Republican's rival Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry received $520,000 from 442 lobbyists.

Days before the 2004 election, a similar Center analysis found that more than 1,000 federally registered lobbyists had personally donated $2.76 million to the campaigns of U.S. senators seeking re-election that year.

"You would expect your elected officials to follow the rules that are on the books," said Celia Viggo Wexler, spokesperson for the campaign finance advocacy group Common Cause about the Center's study. "The reason lobbyists give is because they want to get close to the people in power. And most of the people who have these funds have a lot of power."