A federal district court judge may set important precedent this week when considering if former Senator Larry Craig can use over $200,000 of campaign funds to pay legal costs stemming from his 2007 arrest. You remember that arrest, of course, for introducing to America various considerations of airport etiquette and the vagaries of how far apart people's feet might be when sitting — all while the Federal Election Commission says Craig was "on official business."
The question at hand: Should Craig, who left office in 2009, have been allowed to use money from his campaign account to pay for his legal fees? Doing so has precedent, as McClatchy notes in its overview of the case:
Former Democratic California Rep. Gary Condit, for one, used more than $100,000 in campaign funds for attorneys during a 2001 police investigation into missing intern Chandra Levy. New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel used more than $300,000 from his political action committee to pay attorneys during a 2009-2010 House ethics investigation. Former Florida Republican Rep. Tom Feeney used more than $100,000 in campaign funds to pay attorneys during a 2007 ethics investigation.
But the FEC judges each situation on its own merits. When Craig's decision to use the money was announced in 2007, Politico noted that doing so was a risk, given that FEC rules prohibit the personal use of campaign funds. For example, one may not use campaign funds to buy music memorabilia and fancy watches, no matter how much those things might help ease the stresses of campaigning for elected officials like Jesse Jackson, Jr.
In this case, the FEC decided that Craig has crossed the hazy line. Again from McClatchy:
The Federal Election Commission says Craig improperly used more than $216,000 in campaign funds to pay attorneys after being charged with disorderly conduct for his behavior in a Minneapolis airport men’s room. Craig’s attorneys insist he was on official business and so could use his campaign treasury as other legally embattled lawmakers have done before him. The judicial resolution to this dispute could have a broad reach.
“It would certainly have application for any member of Congress, when they are trying to determine if they could use campaign funds for a legal defense,” Andrew D. Herman, one of Craig’s attorneys, said in an interview Monday.
Usually, candidates don't end campaigns with money in the bank. It is far, far more common that they end up in debt. Hillary Clinton, for example, only recently paid off the debts incurred by her 2008 bid for the presidency, and Michele Bachmann is still dealing with the leak fallout from not paying her staff after a run in 2012. The FEC's guide for federal candidates spends much more time on the issue of debt than surplus. Candidates who aren't running for office can give leftover money to other campaigns, to charity, to anyone besides the candidate or his family as a gift, or, you know, to staff.
The dispute raises at least one question: What if Craig had run for office again? It seems fair to say that ensuring that the candidate isn't incarcerated is a valid use of money raised for the campaign — even if said candidate's career is basically over. Then again, being a free man isn't itself a requirement for running a political campaign: In 2002, Ohio representative Jim Traficant ran for reelection from his prison cell after being convicted of corruption. To any supporters' eternal dismay, he lost.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.