Common Cause Recommends Legislation to Create Legal Defense Funds for NYC Public Officials

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  • Susan Lerner

NEW YORK, NY Today, Common Cause released a comparative analysis of Legal Defense Fund (LDF) models across the country and recommendations for New York City. A framework does not currently exist in New York, creating a policy gap in the campaign finance law. The paper was co-authored by Michael Halberstam, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Law and Economic Studies at Columbia Law School.

“There must and should be a process for public officials to raise funds to pay for legal bills. It’s inappropriate to use campaign funds, and taxpayer funds may not always be eligible. We need a policy in place to give public officials a workable solution and avoid ad hoc improvisation,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

This is not a problem unique to New York or any one public official, but a repeated issue faced by multiple office holders. Often the impulse is to use campaign funds which presents a conflict of interest and perpetuates the influence of big dollar donors. However, taxpayer funds may not always be appropriate to cover the full bill which may exceed the personal resources of the individual. In order to keep public office available to people without means, and free from influence peddling there must be an alternative.

The white paper (attached) proposes legislation to address the persistent confusion over who pays for a public officials’ legal fees.

The legislation would:

  • Set contribution limits for LDF funds identical to contribution limits set forth by New York City’s campaign finance laws.
  • Require record keeping and public disclosure.
  • Restrict fundraising from lobbyists, persons doing business with the City, corporations, limited liability companies and partnerships.
  • Lobbyists and persons “doing business” with the City should be subject to lower contribution limits.
  • Create a separate LDF account, statement of purpose, and form of registration.
  • Require LDF committees to file a statement with the Secretary of State and contain the words “Legal Defense Fund” and the name of the candidate.
  • Allow LDF funds to cover legal fees and costs of civil, criminal, or administrative proceedings against candidates and elected officials that arise from their campaign activities or their activities as officeholders. Funds may not be used for advertising expenses, mass mailers, political consultants or costs associated with raising LDF funds
  • Prohibit the use of LDF funds to cover legal costs associated with personal, nonprofessional, as well as election purposes.
  • Prohibit using funds to cover a payment, or reimbursement for a fine, penalty, judgement or settlement, or a payment to return or disgorge contributions made to any other committee controlled by the candidate.

LDFs have been used by federal, state, and local government officials to raise money for defending themselves against law suits arising from their election activities or activities related to their duties as officeholders.

Other states, like California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Connecticut, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin all provide a version of an LDF.

For more information, see the report.