Legal Defense Funds Raise Money - and Suspicions

Article excerpt

Supporting a cause through financial support of litigation is perfectly ethical. Problems could arise, however, when donations to a politician's defense fund take on the appearance of impropriety.

The press is pursuing you. The Senate is investigating you. Your legal bills are soaring. What's a president to do?

Bill Clinton, like a number of his legally embattled cohorts in the House and Senate, has turned to a recent perk of public office, the legal-defense fund. Authorized by Congress in the early eighties after the Abscam sting left many legislators financially devastated, the funds quickly became a fixture on the American judicial landscape.

Rules governing legal-defense funds in the House and Senate differ. The Senate permits donations of up to $10,000 a year, allowing political-action committees, or PACs, and lobbyists to contribute to such funds but banning corporations and unions from doing so. The Senate also mandates that donations be reported quarterly and records of expenditures be kept.

The House, on the other hand, caps annual contributions to legal-defense funds at $5,000 but permits donations from corporations and unions. Representatives must report donations annually under the gift category on financial-disclosure statements, but they need not detail how the money is disbursed. Neither chamber requires contributors to reveal their business or professional affiliations.

Clinton has imposed more stringent regulations on his legal-defense fund. (A special prosecutor is looking into the president's role in Whitewater-related financial dealings; he faces a sexual-harassment suit as well.) In addition to limiting contributions to $1,000, the president has barred donations from corporations, unions, PACs and registered lobbyists. This requirement, however, was added only after Republicans in Congress complained when Clinton, in last year's State of the Union address, chided Congress for accepting gifts from lobbyists. Detailed reports of collections and expenditures must be issued semiannually by trustees of the president's fund, and active solicitation for monies is strictly forbidden.

To reach his fund's current level of $865,871, barely enough to cover a third of the $2 million in legal fees amassed since the Whitewater investigation began, Clinton has accepted money from 7,000 donors. By contrast, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican from New York, managed to raise $417,708 from only 80 donors during his battle with an ethics investigation in the early nineties, and only 10 of the 80 gave $1,000 or less. …