Politicians can use campaign funds to pay legal fees incurred when campaigns are under investigation for civil and criminal violations, the state elections agency has ruled.
But once the matter becomes “purely a criminal one,” candidates must pay legal fees with a specially designated criminal defense fund, according to a new opinion by the Government Accountability Board.
The GAB opinion is the nonpartisan agency’s first on the use of campaign funds to pay legal fees and comes as a secret “John Doe” probe investigates potential illegal coordination between Republican campaigns and conservative groups during Wisconsin’s recent recalls targeting Gov. Scott Walker and several legislators.
An unnamed campaign committee asked for the GAB opinion, which was posted online Tuesday. It does not include the name of the committee involved, details about the investigation, or the date it was released to the campaign in question.
The opinion was posted days after campaign finance reports showed Walker’s campaign paid about $86,000 to a law firm.
Walker campaign spokesman Jonathan Wetzel said last week that the campaign relies on the Biskupic and Jacobs law firm for a “variety of legal services.” Those payments, labeled “legal fees — compliance/administrative,” were reported by Walker’s campaign on Friday, one day after a state appeals court refused to suspend the John Doe probe.
Wetzel couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.
GAB spokesman Reid Magney declined to say which committee requested the opinion or when it was released to the group, saying that information is not a public record.
The group in question is a candidate’s personal campaign committee that “is currently subject to an investigation which could expose the committee to both civil and criminal penalties,” and asked about using campaign funds to defend the committee in that investigation, the opinion said.
The opinion also found that “a committee is a person by definition in campaign finance laws.”
The GAB said payment of legal fees directly from the campaign account or through a legal defense fund “both appear to be appropriate because the investigation and defense activities cannot currently be parsed between what may be civil and what may be criminal.”
“If that changes, then the committee may only pay for costs incurred in a civil context and a defense fund may be used only to pay costs in a criminal context,” the opinion said.
Payment to a law firm from either a personal campaign committee directly or from a candidate’s legal defense fund can be made in “reasonable proportion” to the types of claims being investigated, the board said, and that is subject to change depending on whether the investigation identifies civil or criminal conduct.
Wisconsin statutes allow government officials to seek or obtain contributions to legal defense funds only if they are being investigated for or charged with a violation of either campaign finance or other election laws.
Walker set up a legal fund about two years ago, in March 2012, during a previous John Doe investigation into his close associates and former aides. He closed that fund after that investigation concluded.