SCOTT MOONEYHAM: North Carolina Needs Defense Fund Rules
Bill Clinton's raised $8 million. Tom DeLay's contained more than $600,000 at the end of last year. Imprisoned former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham has one, too.
For better or worse, legal defense trust funds have become a standard part of political life in America.
On the federal level, we know how much Clinton and DeLay raised, and who contributed to their legal defense funds, because the feds require such disclosure.
No disclosure is required in North Carolina, a fact creating a little heartburn in some circles these days.
That's because earlier this year, supporters of House Speaker Jim Black created a legal defense fund that he could tap to respond to the ongoing state and federal investigations into his campaign fund-raising and other activities. So far, he and the supporters behind the fund haven't voluntarily chosen to disclose any information about it.
With Black heading the House, the legislature also decided against wading into the issue despite an April letter from State Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett urging a system of regulation that would require disclosure of donors.
Black's response has given his critics one more opportunity to beat him about like a dusty saddle blanket.
But the issue is far greater than Jim Black or any single legal defense fund.
In recent years, a number of North Carolina politicians have certainly used money other than their own to fight court battles connected to their candidacies or elected offices.
In 2004, Republican Bill Fletcher surely spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers in an effort to overturn the election of Democrat June Atkinson as state schools superintendent. Atkinson spent a considerable sum responding to the legal challenge.
Who paid for it? Speculation in political circles was that Republican Party financier and retailer Art Pope signed the checks for much of Fletcher's legal battle.
Former Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb didn't take his challenge of Republican Steve Troxler's election as far. But he, too, rang up some significant legal bills. Did any Democratic Party interests pick them up?
Now former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan is pursuing an elections complaint against a 527 group financed by Pope. Is Morgan covering those costs?
The reason it's important to know the answers to these questions is because the donations from these unknown contributors could easily create conflicts of interest for the politicians involved.
In 1996, Clinton's legal defense fund turned down suspect contributions from fund-raiser Charlie Trie. Its administrators understood that, because of public disclosure requirements, the donations would look bad.
More recently, DeLay's defense fund was forced to return donations from two lobbyists -- a violation of U.S. House rules -- after the information was disclosed.
Besides requiring disclosure, federal rules limit donations to $5,000 for House members and $10,000 for senators and executive branch officials.
Bartlett, in his letter to legislative leaders, never called for donation limits. He just wanted disclosure. Under the circumstances, it's a more-than-reasonable request.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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