Vitter Seeks Help Paying for 'Very Serious Sin'
Off the hook but cash strapped, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is appealing to the Federal Election Commission to allow him to use campaign donations to defray legal costs associated with his involvement in the famed D.C. Madam case.
According to this story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Vitter's attorney, Jan Baran, argued in a recent letter to the FEC that Vitter should be allowed to use his reelection funds to pay for $207,000 worth of legal and public relations fees stemming from his ties to an escort service owned by the late so-called D.C. Madam, Deborah Jean Palfrey.
The paper reports that some Vitter donors aren't thrilled about the idea of having their political donations used to pay the senator's personal legal bills. As John Stumpf Jr., the owner of a real estate firm who gave $1,000 to Vitter's 2010 reelection campaign told the paper, "I contributed to get him elected, not to protect his personal interests. I think this should come out of his own pocket, or another fund."
Other donors, including Jed Darensbourg, who gave $4,200 to Vitter's reelection campaign, suggested Vitter set up a legal defense fund. "I think people should have the option of helping him pay his legal bills," Darensbourg said. "I just don't think it's fair to take it from contributions intended to help him get re-elected."
FEC rules prohibit federal candidates and officeholders from using campaign money to be converted for personal use; all expenses paid for with campaign accounts must be related to the politician's official duties. And while it may not seem that Vitter's involvement with prostitutes would have much to do with his official duties as an officeholder, Baran reportedly is arguing that the senator's legal and public relations expenses incurred from his involvement in the D.C. Madam case "are the direct result of the senator holding office."
That includes "quashing subpoenas, assisting in the defense of an ethics committee complaint, or advising Sen. Vitter in connection with managing press attention and public communications," Baran reportedly wrote to the FEC.
Contacted by the Sleuth, Baran declined to comment on his letter.
Kenneth Gross, a renowned expert on campaign finance compliance, tells us he thinks it sounds as if "at least part of [Vitter's] legal fees could be covered." He noted the FEC has been "somewhat permissive in the use of campaign funds for legal expenses if a nexus can be drawn to [the office holder's] official duties."
Or, as campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel tells the Sleuth, it looks like Vitter is using "the Bob Kerrey argument."
That would be former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who won an advisory opinion from the FEC in 2001 allowing him to use leftover campaign funds to cover media relations costs associated with tamping down a story about his involvement in the Thang Phong massacre during the Vietnam War. (Read the FEC's advisory opinion regarding Senator Kerrey.)
"The Bob Kerrey argument that Senator Vitter is now using is that 'but for' his position as a federal officeholder, his involvement in the D.C. Madam case would never have come to light and he never would have had to incur these legal costs," Kappel says.
From a congressional ethics standpoint, Vitter has lucked out since his alleged dalliances with prostitutes occurred before he was a senator. The Senate ethics committee in May exonerated Vitter because his contacts with the late D.C. Madam's escort service occurred when he was a House member, before he ran for the Senate. And since the House ethics panel cannot retroactively investigate Vitter's conduct, the Louisiana Republican looks to be off the hook completely.
And, of course, we'll know by November of 2010 whether Vitter is off the hook completely politically for what he himself called a "very serious sin."
Mary Ann Akers
July 8, 2008; 5:35 PM ET
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