Questions arise over Warnock’s use of campaign funds to fight lawsuit

This time Warnock was serving in the Senate. And he enlisted his campaign lawyers from Elias Law Group to represent him in the case, as well as an Atlanta firm, Krevolin & Horst, which helped ELG.

The question for Warnock is whether this was a good use of campaign funds.

Federal Election Commission guidelines state that campaign money can be used for « litigation expenses where the candidate/holder was the defendant and the litigation arose directly out of campaign activity or the candidate’s status in as a candidate ».

Questions surrounding Warnock’s actions in the case come as he takes on Republican Herschel Walker in one of the most competitive and important Senate races this fall. Walker is facing multiple FEC complaints from Democrats who allege he illegally spent campaign money to prepare for his Senate ad, and that he and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R- Ga.) Contact information without proper disclosures. He called both complaints frivolous.

Now, Warnock has its own campaign finance controversy to navigate. Federal campaign finance law experts point to the so-called “independent test” of the FEC – or, in the words of Caleb Burns, a Wiley Rein lawyer who specializes in election law, “the expenses that would exist regardless of a candidate’s status as a candidate or office holder. »

« The rationale for this prohibition is to honor the intent of campaign contributors that their contributions be used for political purposes and not, for example, to relieve the candidate of personal obligation, » Burns said.

Warnock’s campaign argues the use of campaign funds was authorized because the second lawsuit, despite the same allegations as in 2019, was filed while Warnock was in office. They noted that the process service took place at Warnock’s Senate office in Atlanta.

Warnock’s unique situation presents a gray area, as the 17-year-old allegations do not implicate him as a congressman or a candidate for office. His campaign argues, however, that Robertson’s invocation of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments made Warnock’s 2021 status as a federal office holder relevant.

« This frivolous lawsuit against Senator Reverend Warnock and other officials was served on his official office and is based on laws that apply only to him due to his status as an office holder, » Marc said. Elias, a prominent Democratic election lawyer who represents Warnock’s campaign, in a statement to POLITICO. « It is completely legal and proper to have used campaign funds on this legal issue, as many federal office holders have already done. Any other suggestion is completely wrong.

However, the examples cited by the Warnock campaign of cases where the FEC ruled that office holders were permitted to use campaign funds for legal fees all related to events that took place while the person was a member of Congress. For example, the campaign pointed to former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) paying for litigation related to the secret recording of a Republican House conference call in 1996.

And when Warnock’s attorneys last year sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, they specifically noted that Robertson’s claims against Warnock « relate to actions allegedly taken in 2005 and 2008, when he was not a federal employee ».

Yet they now argue that because the complaint was filed while Warnock was in the Senate, it was appropriate to use his campaign money to cover his defense.

The Robertson trial likely represents a small fraction of the work done by Elias Law Group for the Warnock campaign. The campaign has paid $66,000 to Elias Law Group since October, according to FEC disclosures. Prior to that, Warnock for Georgia paid Perkins Coie, the firm Mark Elias and other attorneys parted ways with, $210,000 between July 2020 and December 2021.

Warnock’s campaign paid Krevolin & Horst, another firm listed in Warnock’s paperwork in the case, $1,183 – meaning the firm likely didn’t do any extensive work for Warnock’s campaign other than handling the Robertson case.

No one considers the trial to be substantial. Among other things, Robertson accuses Warnock of conspiring with the city of Atlanta to frame him and of participating in schemes involving a company where Robertson once worked. He also complains about his belongings being lost in a storage locker and being uncomfortable while attending one of Warnock’s church services a long time ago.

But the merit of the lawsuit is separate from how Warnock paid to defend against him.

Charlie Spies, a Republican lawyer who specializes in political law, said the bottom line was whether Warnock would have incurred the expenses as a private citizen. And in this case, Spies said, the answer is yes.

“If Warnock uses campaign money to pay for a lawsuit that predates his candidacy, so by definition it existed independently of his candidacy and would be prohibited from using campaign funds,” said Spies, who previously served as an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee.

« Personal use » of campaign funds, Spies said, is « something the FEC is particularly focused on. »

“The severity of the violation will depend on whether the FEC considers it knowing and willful,” he said.

If the FEC determines that it was a violation, but not a deliberate one, such a case would likely be resolved by the candidate paying a fraction of the amount that was illegally spent, according to Spies.

« I don’t think his donors are giving, » Spies said, « for him to fund personal lawsuits. »


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