Congressman Michael Grimm’s legal woes may cut into his personal pocketbook, if past rulings are any precedent, legal experts say.
The Staten Island Republican, who was indicted this week on a slew of wire, mail fraud and other charges, may be forced to dig into his own savings to pay mounting attorney fees, instead of relying on campaign cash, because the charges he faces do not pertain to his political office and concern actions taken before he was elected.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission declined to comment on the specifics of his case, but said the commission has, in the past, barred officials from using their campaign coffers to pay certain legal fees.
“In specific situations the Commission has concluded that campaign funds may be used to pay for up to 50 percent of legal expenses that do not relate directly to allegations arising from campaign or officeholder activity if the candidate or officeholder is required to provide substantive responses to the press regarding the allegations of wrongdoing,” the spokeswoman, Julia Queen, said in an email to the Observer.
Mr. Grimm, who is being challenged by former Democratic Councilman Domenic Recchia Jr., will need to come before the FEC to ask for an advisory opinion in regards to how his legal fees will be paid, according to the FEC.
But a review of past cases by the Observer shows that, in general, elected officials indicted on charges related to “campaign” or “officeholder activity” have been allowed to pay the entirety of their legal fess with campaign funds. In cases where allegations were unrelated to campaign activity, partial but not full payouts from campaign accounts were permitted.
In those cases, the FEC has ruled that candidate can use campaign funds for legal fees related specifically to press interactions–a lawyer speaking to a reporter or drafting of a press release, for instance–and any other efforts undertaken to explain the charges to the media. But other activities, such as appearing in court to defend an official, are generally not covered by campaign cash.
Despite a two-year investigation into his campaign fund-raising, the 20-count federal indictment handed down against Mr. Grimm this week focused entirely on his ownership of an Upper East Side restaurant named Healthalicious, which he co-owned before running for Congress.
Nonetheless, because the investigation touched on his fund-raising practices, he has up until now been able to pay his substantial legal fees to the firm Patton Boggs from his campaign account, which is now almost a half million dollars in debt.
Republicans have grumbled to Politico that Mr. Grimm should have set up a legal defense fund to handle his expenses instead. Mr. Grimm, according to the outlet, has also been late in paying his dues to the national Republican Party. The National Republican Campaign Committee is also reportedly refusing to provide any more financial assistance the congressman, which could damage his chances of winning re-election against a strong Democratic contender.
An attorney for Mr. Grimm did not immediately return a request for comment.