Former State Senator Carl Kruger at a 2008 rally in support of the Atlantic Yards. Source: Tracy Collins (“threecee”) / Flickr

When you give a politician your money, how they spend it is out of your hands. Most of the time the money goes towards the extremely expensive cycle of campaigning. But, sometimes, when politicians find themselves in hot water, either fighting off ethical or criminal charges, they dip into their campaign reserves to pay off their expensive legal fees.

The New York Daily News is reporting that donors are getting sick of seeing their money used to defend corrupt public officials as opposed to advancing the agendas and goals that they were promised when they signed the checks.

Over the last nine years, the Daily News reported that politicians have spent $6.78 million in contributed dollars to pay off legal fees. Disgraced State Senator Carl Kruger led the pack by spending a staggering $1.5 million on his legal fees.

Michael Bebon, who gave Kruger $5,000, said he doesn’t mind politicians using campaign dollars for legal fees, as long as they are innocent of the charges. If they are found guilty, Bebon said he’d like to see the money returned to the donors.

“[Kruger] was convicted,” Bebon told the Daily News. “He was a crook. I don’t give money to crooks.”

In response to the growing outcry over corruption, Democrats in the State Senate have proposed a campaign finance reform package that bars politicians from using campaign funds to pay off legal fees. So far, the proposed plan has seen some bipartisan support, but the bill still has steep opposition.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has had to use his own campaign cash for legal fees, opposes the bill.

Silver has spent $75,000 in campaign cash on legal fees since 2004, including $40,000 tied to a recent probe into his handling of a secret taxpayer-supported $103,000 settlement with two women who accused Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) of sexual harassment. Silver has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

“There are legitimate expenses,” Silver spokesman Michael Whyland said. “It’s not taxpayer dollars we’re talking about here. You can be a subject of a baseless lawsuit that you have to defend yourself against.”

In 1989, the State Board of Elections ruled that politicians can use campaign funds to pay off legal fees as long as the investigation related to the person’s office or campaign.

Should politicians be able to use contributed money to pay off legal fees? As public figures, is it fair for them to be on their own when they are subjected to a wide range of potential lawsuits? Would barring them from using campaign funds to pay off legal fees make them more careful, honest and law-abiding? Let us know.

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  • Tinman

    This is the epitome of ridiculous! Unused campaign donations should not be allowed to be used for anything other than political campaigns, not personal expenses. The 1989 ruling MUST be amended!

  • Andrew Kent

    There is, or should be, a difference between legal fees used for Election Law challenges during a campaign, or taxpayer suits against a sitting legislator in the course of his or her official acts, and legal fees associated with personal misbehavior, criminal charges, domestic relations matters, torts, or other litigation not directly related to a politician’s official duties.

    Campaign contributions receive special treatment under our campaign finance and tax laws precisely because they are campaign contributions, and not personal compensation, lulus, or, heaven forbid, graft. There must be strict rules and oversight as to how these funds may be used and what is to be done with them once the politician has left office. With so much so-called legitimate campaign funding coming from PACs, bundlers, and other nefarious intermediaties, who needs the archetypal bagmen of old to grease the legislative wheels for the special interests? Campaign contributions should be for electing or re-electing politicians to office, not for keeping them out of jail.

    The flip side of this is that truly honest and effective politicians should be able to protect themselves from nuisance suits or frivolous accusations or investigations designed to undercut their effectiveness. Perhaps some kind of purchased legal insurance could supplant any right to use campaign funds for this purpose. But the bottom line is that campaign financing legislation is supposed to protect the integrity of the process, so legislation that holds contributions to their intended purpose is long overdue.