I-Team 10 investigation: Campaign cash for legal fees

Posted at: 05/22/2013 6:18 AM
Updated at: 05/22/2013 11:46 PM
By: Brett Davidsen

It seems every week there's a new scandal brewing in Albany and I-Team 10 wanted to know how those implicated lawmakers are paying for those high priced lawyers. I-Team 10 discovered they're using the money you gave them.

A lot of people give to politicians, hoping your donations will help get your favorite candidate elected. I-Team 10 has discovered that over the last decade, 20 lawmakers have spent an astonishing amount of that money to get themselves out of trouble.
Scandal has engulfed Albany, wire-taps, embezzlement, bribery, corruption. Lawmakers charged as law-breakers.

Senator Ted O'Brien, (D), State Senate said, "We just have to take a hard line on corruption. It can't be tolerated."

Ted O'Brien is new to the New York State Senate this year.

O'Brien said, "To say it's not pervasive ignores the facts. I mean we've got two current sitting legislators under indictment right now."

But when New York lawmakers get in a legal bind, how do they pay those high-priced lawyers to defend them? Many of them use the money the people gave them, dipping into their campaign war chests. A recent analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that since 2004, elected state officials have spent nearly $7 million in campaign cash to defend themselves in criminal or ethics investigations. It's a safety net most New Yorkers aren't lucky enough to have.

Bill Mahoney, NYPIRG, said, "If somebody engages in illegal activity in their workplace, they're not going to have this slush fund where they spend, in some cases, over a million dollars to defend themselves."

Here are a few of the biggest spenders, according to NYPIRG, among those racking up big legal bills. State Assemblyman Vito Lopez pressured to resign this week after a state ethics report detailed sexual harassment accusations brought by female staff members. He has spent $276,000 in campaign funds on lawyers.  Former state comptroller Alan Hevesi used more than three quarters of a million dollars to defend against corruption charges.

Then there's the million dollar club, former governor David Paterson, who spent $1.1 million to fend off ethics allegations. Former senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, $1.5 million to fight federal corruption charges. Former downstate senator Carl Kruger, now in prison for bribery, spent $1.7 million in campaign cash to defend himself.

I-Team 10 Brett Davidsen said, "There is a law on the books that says lawmakers can't convert the money for personal use, but watch-dog groups say the law is far too easy to skirt."

Mahoney said, "You're limited to spending campaign funds on purposes related to running for office or holding office. But that's defined incredibly broadly where many candidates can stretch that very creatively."

Rochester defense attorney James Nobles says he believes if the politician's indiscretion is personal, he should have to use his own money, But, if it's related to his official duties, well that's different.
James Nobles, defense attorney, said, "Because what you see all the time is partisan politics and these politicians attacking each other, saying this person did that or this person did this, I'm not sure it makes sense for politicians to have to defend themselves from baseless allegations from the other side with their own money."

Davidsen said, "But do you really think people who donate to these campaigns really want that money being spent on legal defenses?"

Nobles said, "Well, they certainly know it's a possibility as we've seen many, many times. I think it's a risk donors need to be aware of."

There are now a number of bills floating around in Albany to deal with campaign finance reform. O'Brien has introduced legislation, though, that specifically outlaws the use of campaign money to pay attorney fees.

O'Brien said, "When somebody makes campaign donations to you, it's because they believe in your candidacy and they want to elect you to office. That campaign money shouldn't be used to keep you out of prison."

On Tuesday assembly Republicans unveiled their own reform bill that prohibits the use of funds for criminal defenses and would require that campaign donations of public officials convicted of a felony be returned or donated to charity. News10NBC will keep tracking this story and let you know how it it develops.

If you want to find out if your local lawmaker is co-sponsoring the Senate or Assembly bill on the use of campaign funds:

Click here for the Senate Bill

Click here for the Assembly Bill