New Castle News


May 1, 2012

Our Opinion: State politicians use campaign funds in criminal cases

NEW CASTLE — If you want to wage a spirited defense against criminal charges, you need money.

A good attorney, after all, isn’t cheap.

But if you are an influential elected official in Pennsylvania facing trial, this problem comes with a ready solution. All you have to do is tap into your campaign funds.

That’s right: In Pennsylvania, it’s perfectly permissible under the law to use money contributed to campaigns to bankroll criminal defense efforts. Legal fees are allowable expenses under state campaign laws, so it makes perfect sense to direct donations to defense lawyers, right?

Well, we suppose it makes sense if you’re a Pennsylvania politician. For the rest of us, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

Yet when state Sen. Jane Orie needed money to pay her attorney, William Costopoulos, for his work to defend her on charges related to the use of state employees for political purposes, the senator didn’t have to dip into her own pocket.

Instead, she reached into her campaign fund, and wrote out two checks to Costopoulos, totaling $100,000. The information is part of Orie’s required campaign expense filing.

To be fair, Orie isn’t the first Pennsylvania politician to exploit campaign donations for this purpose. Because of Pennsylvania’s Bonusgate scandal and other legal woes, a raft of state politicians have used their campaign funds to cover criminal defense expenses.

But to be fairer, this is an option that isn’t open to the average person charged with a crime. No one other than a politician has a special account that can be redirected in this fashion.

Furthermore, no one honestly believes that money contributed to campaigns is intended for this purpose. Donations are driven by the votes and positions of candidates and elected officials, not the possibility they will be indicted.

When it comes to making political reforms in order to promote better, more accountable government, some matters are complex and require the drawing of fine legal lines. This isn’t one of them.

It’s a relatively simple matter for the Legislature to pass a measure that declares a distinct difference between legal fees that can crop up in the course of running a campaign and those that deal with criminal cases. The same law would ban the use of campaign money to pay criminal defense lawyers and related expenses.

This is a matter that’s so simple — and so obvious — that we wonder why lawmakers haven’t dealt with it as part of their supposed desire to clean up Harrisburg in the wake of the Bonusgate scandal. A cynic might wonder if the failure to do so is based on worries other legislators may need this sort of legal assistance.

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