Crooked politicians getting help with their legal bills -- from you
August 13, 2012By Dave Davies
Last month, a Western Pennsylvania judge ordered former state Sen. Jane Orie to repay the $110,000 taxpayers had spent on her criminal defense against corruption charges.
What's remarkable about the case is not that public funds were used to defend a corrupt official, but that she was required to repay them.
For years, prosecutors, ethics investigators and reform advocates have been troubled to see Pennsylvania officials use taxpayer dollars and campaign funds to hire blue-chip defense attorneys when they're under investigation.
One example is former State House Speaker William DeWeese, who was convicted of corruption charges in February.
According to information supplied in response to a freedom of information request, Pennsylvania taxpayers spent $84,000 on private attorneys fees for DeWeese's defense. So far, there's no sign they'll get any of that money back.
How can that be?
Both the House and Senate have policies to provide members and staff with counsel if they're caught up in an investigation related to their work -- up to a point.
"In the case of someone who is actually indicted or is charged, the payment would cease at that point," said Russell Faber, chief clerk of the Pennsylvania Senate, describing a longstanding policy agreed upon by leaders of the chamber.
Employment-related defense not unreasonable
National experts say it's neither unreasonable nor uncommon to provide representation for employees caught up in a legal matter as a result of their employment.
Some people may be investigated and never charged. And lawmakers and staff, who've done nothing wrong, may have to answer subpoenas, provide evidence or give grand jury testimony, and they need legal advice.
Carol Carson, a Connecticut ethics officer and former president of the Council on Government Ethics Laws, said some legal indemnity, even for elected officials, makes sense.
"If you told me if I were running for office that there was a chance that someone could file a complaint, an unfounded complaint against me, and that it could result in legal fees in $50,000, $100,000 or more, I might think twice about running for office," Carson said.
But in cases where Pennsylvania lawmakers were subsequently convicted of abusing their offices, the Legislature hasn't so much as sent a letter seeking repayment of money spent for their lawyers during the investigative phase of the case.
But Pennsylvania deemed out of step
Craig Holman of the Washington-based group Public Citizen said Pennsylvania is out of step with the rest of the country.
"If an actual charge is made, I don't consider it appropriate that taxpayers ought to foot any part of the bill," Holman said. "It is not a common practice across the country, either among the states or at the federal level."
While the practice in Pennsylvania is that most corrupt politicians don't repay public funds spent on their legal defense, it did happen in Orie's case. She was investigated by a county prosecutor in Pittsburgh, Stephen Zappala, who got a judge to order Orie repay the $110,000 the Senate had spent on her legal counsel.
Zappala cited a provision in state law requiring convicted public officials to repay taxpayer funds spent on their defense. Prominent defense attorney William Costopoulos, who represented Orie and DeWeese in their corruption cases, said lawmakers are constantly investigated these days, and it's proper for them to get assistance from the Legislature up to the point where charges are filed.
He said that's a longstanding practice in Pennsylvania. "Even out in (Orie's case in) Pittsburgh, the Senate Republican caucus at no time asked for reimbursement," Costopoulos said.
The state attorney general is legally entitled to seek repayment of legal expenses, both in state prosecutions and federal cases, such as the conviction of former state Sen. Vince Fumo of Philadelphia.
Nils Frederickson, spokesman for Attorney General Linda Kelly, declined a recorded interview.
He said in the "bonusgate" cases, which include DeWeese, prosecutors were told by attorneys for the Legislature that no public funds were spent on defending the officials charged.
That explanation is at odds with information supplied by state House officials in response to a public information request, which said significant funds were spent for DeWeese and former House Speaker John Perzel.
Delving into campaign funds
Besides tax dollars, Pennsylvania politicians in trouble have another ready source of funds to tap for legal expenses -- their own campaign chests.
"Pennsylvania law allows you to use campaign funds for anything that will help you politically so to speak," said state Rep. Eugene DePasquale of York, who has long advocated for campaign-finance reform. DePasquale said he doesn't think spending campaign funds for defense in a criminal probe conforms to the state election code, but courts have never prohibited it.
Influential politicians can assemble hefty campaign chests, and many have tapped them to pay their criminal defense lawyers. That' s done in many states.
State Sen. Robert Mellow of Scranton spent $738,000 in campaign funds before pleading guilty in a corruption case. Fumo tapped his fund for more than $1 million.
Holman of Public Citizen said there are states that restrict the use of campaign funds for attorneys fees.
"You can transfer campaign funds normally if it's related to a campaign charge or a campaign transgression," he said. That typically would include defending efforts to get a candidate get kicked off the ballot or litigation over campaign advertising.
While reform groups such as Common Cause and Democracy Rising Pa. criticize the Legislature's practices and push for changes in law, such reforms face an uphill battle.