Craig says FEC penalty is unfair

BOISE, Idaho — Former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig said Wednesday federal election regulators are being unduly harsh by demanding he pay nearly $360,000 in fines and restitution for tapping campaign accounts for his legal defense following his 2007 arrest in an airport bathroom sex sting.

In October, the Federal Election Commission told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., the Idaho Republican should pay $140,000 in fines and return nearly $217,000 to his campaign, arguing he misused donor’s money to fund a personal expense.

In a 26-page rebuttal, Craig contends the proposed penalties are “harsh, unjustified remedies,” that he doesn’t have the financial resources to cover the total — and that he and his lawyers always acted in good faith, having genuinely thought using the campaign money was appropriate because they concluded other lawmakers had done it in the past, in similar situations.

Craig’s filing also downplays the FEC’s contention such a penalty is necessary to deter people from following Craig’s example.

“Any deterrent effect has already been achieved,” wrote his lawyer, Andrew Herman. “The professional and personal consequences of Senator Craig’s guilty plea have been severe … To argue that without a harsh penalty a party might want to duplicate this experience ignores these costs.”

The FEC will now get a chance to respond to Craig’s arguments, with its rebuttal due in December.

In previous filings, the regulator contends Craig unjustly enriched himself on the backs of campaign donors, when he should have funded his legal fight with his personal wealth.

Misusing campaign money for an illegitimate purpose is not unlike fraud, commission lawyers have said, arguing Craig’s actions “undermine confidence in government.”

The senator was arrested June 11, 2007, by an undercover police officer at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The officer said Craig tapped his foot and signaled under a stall divider that he wanted sex.

He pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace charges, but then began a prolonged but unsuccessful fight, financed by money from his campaign, to undo his plea.

The FEC, meanwhile, has been trying to get him to repay his campaign coffers for more than a year, while Craig argues the trip fell under his official senatorial duties because it happened while he was traveling between Idaho and Washington.

Government lawyers insist Craig has plenty of money to satisfy its demands, citing a list of assets owned by Craig and his wife, Suzanne, and valued at nearly $1.4 million: A yacht, a 5,000-square-foot home on 2 acres, savings and retirement accounts, cash, and numerous vehicles.

Herman, meanwhile, counters that the three-term senator’s finances are actually in the red by more than $155,000, with the yacht currently valued at a negative $15,000, according to Wednesday’s filing.

Even if Berman Jackson were to find Craig did divert campaign resources inappropriately, his lawyer contends seeking fines totaling $140,000 on top of repaying the $217,000 he took from his campaign would be unprecedented, unjustified and force him to tap into funds he’d set aside for his retirement.

“The commission’s assessment of Senator Craig’s finances … ignores his negative net worth,” Herman wrote. “Any penalty should equal only the amount that the Commission establishes was spent solely on legal work for the Minnesota case.”

Herman contends the amount in question hasn’t yet been accurately calculated.

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