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Senate candidate Joe Miller writes $94,000 campaign check to cover legal bills

Jill Burke

Even before tea party candidate Joe Miller gets his campaign going for a possible U.S. Senate run in 2014, his campaign spending may already be under the lens.

The leftover money – nearly $425,000 – from his unsuccessful 2010 race against incumbent Lisa Murkowski sat idle for more than a year until late this spring. He's now doling out cash to a campaign consultant and a school that advises potential candidates. Most recently, Miller wants to use a sizable chunk of his campaign money to help tidy up loose ends stemming from his long-running court battle over whether he was wronged during his intense 2010 campaign against Murkowski.

Full disclosure: Last month, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides ordered Miller to pay 75 percent of Alaska Dispatch's some $112,000 in legal fees in the case over whether Miller’s employment record with the Fairbanks North Star Borough should have been made public during the 2010 campaign. In late June, Miller deposited campaign funds with the clerk to cover what Joannides ruled he owes Alaska Dispatch, so he doesn't have to pay while he pursues an appeal. Alaska Dispatch has brought to the court its concerns about the appropriateness of using of campaign funds, instead of personal funds, to pay the bill.

The news organization raised the question to ensure it ultimately gets its money when the appeal is done, said Alaska Dispatch attorney, John McKay. Political candidates are allowed to use campaign funds to cover legal bills that relate to their campaign, but not for personal use.

“If it’s legal, great,” McKay said. “But that’s not at all clear, and my client has the right to know these funds will be available to pay this debt.”

McKay has questioned whether the more than two-and-a-half years of court proceedings with Miller are entirely campaign-related, and suggested Miller seek guidance directly from the Federal Election Commission before the court agrees to accept the cash.

Money being held by court 

The money – $94,000 – taken from Miller’s campaign account was paid to the court instead of Alaska Dispatch, to be held as a deposit until the Alaska Supreme Court reviews the case.

With this and other recent expenditures, Miller's campaign fund has shrunk to $317,000, down from $425,000 at the start of the year.

In June, a Superior Court judge in Alaska ordered Miller to pay more than $85,000 of Alaska Dispatch's attorney fees and costs from the news organization's 2010 lawsuit to make public Miller's employment records from his time as a part-time government lawyer.

As the prevailing party in the scuffle over whether Miller's employment records should be made public, Alaska Dispatch was entitled to seek reimbursement for fees and costs.

In the months and years following the initial ruling, Miller, convinced he'd been wronged, sought damages from his former employer. Even though Alaska Dispatch won the records lawsuit, and his campaign was over, Miller's quest to hold someone accountable for what he considered an invasion of privacy kept the lawsuit alive.

Although Alaska Dispatch was not a direct target of the ongoing litigation, Miller refused to allow the news organization out of the lawsuit. Only under one condition would Miller let that happen: Alaska Dispatch would have to agree to not seek attorney fees and court costs from Miller, a condition with which the news organization refused to comply. As Miller’s case against the Fairbanks Borough and its former mayor dragged on month after month, costs for everyone involved continued to climb.

Miller ordered to pay 75% of legal fees 

Last month, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides ordered Miller to pay 75 percent of Alaska Dispatch's some $112,000 in legal fees – an unusually high percentage, assigned because Joannides felt Miller's actions unnecessarily delayed resolution and drove up costs. In legal terms, the judge had deemed Miller's actions “vexatious or in bad faith.”

On Monday, Miller appealed Joannides' decision. However, while the Alaska Supreme Court considers the case, Miller still has the $85,000 judgment to fulfill, either by paying it or filing a bond or cash deposit with the court. To meet this obligation, Miller used money from his federal election committee, Citizens for Joe Miller (previously established under the committee name Joe Miller for U.S. Senate).

Miller's campaign treasurer has said the campaign wrote a $94,000 check late last month to cover the tab, $11,000 higher than the initial judgment to cover interest and other expenses while the matter is on appeal. The amount also shows up as a line item disbursement on Miller's most recent FEC filing.

While the Federal Elections Commission allows campaign-related legal expenses to be paid for by funds in a candidate's federal campaign committee, it prohibits spending the money for personal use. When the boundaries between campaign and personal expenses are unclear, the federal commission encourages candidates to seek an advisory opinion from the commission before writing checks. This helps prevent a candidate from discovering after the fact that the commission deems the disbursement of funds illegal.

Alaska Dispatch contended Miller kept the case going long after the election by attempting to persuade the court his former employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and a former borough mayor, Jim Whitaker, had harmed him by improperly releasing private information about him to the media.

FEC has 60 days to rule 

Through his attorney, Miller has defended the use of his campaign funds for the legal fight. Were it not for his candidacy, Miller's employment history and past conduct would never have been so highly scrutinized or exposed, Thomas Wickwire told the court in a motion he filed countering McKay's concerns.

In the same motion, Miller campaign treasurer Bernadette Koppy states that the campaign has sought an advisory opinion from the Federal Elections Commission about whether they are properly allowed to use the campaign funds to pay the full legal bill.

Advisory opinions give candidates a kind of legal cover with the FEC, since many legal situations are not clearly covered in FEC guidelines. Such matters are taken up on a case by case basis by the commission, and the commission hasn't yet offered its assessment of Miller's ability to spend his campaign cash on legal bills in this case. Miller’s request was just filed, and the commission has not yet said if it will be expedited. If not, the FEC has up to 60 days to rule.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com