Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Spare Change for Duke's Defense

It was inevitable that Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was going to ask permission to use his campaign funds to pay his legal bills. This week, Cunningham did just that in a letter to the Federal Election Commission. The North County Times reports that Cunningham's legal expenses are going to be in the range of $1.5 million. And, that figure doesn't include the cost of appeals after he is convicted on bribery and conspiracy charges.

"The 63-year-old Escondido Republican faces mounting legal costs as a team of attorneys defends his dealings with a Washington defense contractor, Cunningham's chief of staff Harmony Allen said Tuesday.

Cunningham is being investigated by a federal grand jury in San Diego that is probing a real estate transaction and other dealings between the congressman and defense contractor Mitchell Wade, owner of the firm MZM Inc.

In a letter received by the commission on Aug. 8, the Friends of Duke Cunningham campaign committee sought a declaration authorizing use of the money donated to him by contributors and political action committees to pay the lawyers.

"Duke has made that request," Allen said, adding that his lawyers have said his expenses could reach the $1.5 million figure.

In its latest filing with the election commission, Friends of Duke Cunningham reported having $672,114 in available cash as of June 30."

Not all of Cunningham's former contributors like the prospect of their contributions going to pay off Cunningham's lawyers. That wasn't what they wrote the checks for in the first place. In a follow-up story the NC Times talks to some of Duke's reluctant supporters.

"Escondido real estate agent Paul Van Elderen, who contributed $500 to Cunningham in May, said Wednesday that he wants his money go to other GOP candidates.

"I don't know if he's guilty of anything or not guilty," Van Elderen said. "But I think it's only fair that the money go to the Republican Party."

It's not just Cunningham's former contributors who feel that the use of campaign money to pay legal expenses is out of line. Melanie Sloan who heads the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is appalled to think that Cunningham will be able to use campaign money to defray his mounting legal bills.

"It seems like a problem that money Cunningham got from MZM can now be used to defend his conduct with MZM," Sloan said in reference to contributions to Cunningham from the company.

Sloan also said the commission "bends the rules" to allow lawmakers to tap campaign funds to pay legal bills.

"This is an example of that," Sloan said. "When people give money to candidates, it's because they like their policies and want to see something done in Congress, not because they want to see it used for defraying legal bills."

The nonpartisan group Sloan heads will probably write a letter to the election commission opposing use of the campaign funds to pay attorneys, she added."

Cunningham may also be forced to use proceeds from the sale of his $2.55 million Rancho Santa Fe home or his business, Top Gun Enterprises, to pay his legal bills. Of course, when Cunningham gets out of jail, he will undoubtedly turn up as a defense lobbyiest or a highly paid consultant at some right wing think tank.