Under investigation? Say hello to legal defense funds

Written by Common Cause Interns on July 2, 2013


Thumbnail for the Congressional ethics campaign

 

In June, State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), opened a legal defense fund to start gathering money to pay for potential legal and administrative expenses following the FBI raid of his office.

A legal defense fund is a separate bank account that a candidate or official can open when an investigation or proceeding commences, or when a private person files civil action against them. Unlike campaign contributions, there is no limit to how much a single person or organization can give to the fund. There were even fewer restrictions on this money until 2007, when Senator Calderon's previous fund, among others, were used for elaborate non-legal expenses.

Some of these expenses included numerous payments to his American Express credit card, dinners at restaurants in Hawaii, and elaborate fundraisers. Before those much-needed reforms, legal defense funds could use the money on anything.

The new restrictions allow funds only be raised in an amount reasonably calculated to pay and only expended for attorney's fees and other administrative and legal expenses. It is very likely that Senator Calderon will raise even more than his previous defense fund that reached over $160,000 to pay for high profile defense attorney Mark Geragos, famous for representing clients such as Chris Brown and Scott Peterson.

In creating a better and more accountable government, it is not only important to pay attention to whether or not candidates are guilty of their crime, but also the weak set of laws that allow loopholes such as special interests to pay for keeping legislators out of jail. Paying for someone's legal fees, essentially paying to help keep their freedom, would make them very grateful. Calderon's previous defense fund included over $30,000 from one PAC alone, the California Correctional and Peace Officers Association, numerous insurance organizations (Calderon was heavily involved with insurance policy at the time and is now the chair of the Insurance Committee), and even leftover money from his brother's campaign funds.

California Common Cause acknowledges that any large donation of money is influential, let alone money from interest groups to ensure a politician's freedom. Legal defense funds are an unfair way for special interests to have political influence. There needs to be another transformation in legal defense fund practices that limit the amount of money special interests can pay towards these funds and a discussion of why third parties should be able to have a strong financial influence in a politicians personal life.

Office: California Common Cause, Common Cause National

Issues: Ethics, Ethics

Tags: Resources and Rules, State Ethics

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