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Campaign donations to Joe Miller may be used to pay legal debts

Jill Burke

Tea Party candidate Joe Miller has the all clear to use money from his U.S. Senate campaign committee, Citizens for Joe Miller, to cover a legal debt he owes stemming from his 2010 candidacy in Alaska.

Thursday morning, the Federal Elections Commission voted 5-1 that Miller's use of campaign money to meet his court-ordered financial obligations was allowable, finding that “the lawsuit would not have existed irrespective of Miller's campaign.”

Alaska Dispatch and other media outlets sued Miller's former employer in 2010 to gain access to Miller's employment records, which contained information about Miller's inappropriate use of workplace computers during a prior, local election. Miller was the Republican Party's U.S. Senate candidate in Alaska.

The press won the case and the employment records were released -- but through legal action, Miller kept the case going, attempting to ferret out what he perceived as a source that had leaked his private employment history to the media. In the November 2010 general election, Miller was defeated by write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski, the state's incumbent Republican, whom Miller defeated in the primary.

Miller has appealed an Alaska Superior court judgment issued in June requiring him to pay $94,000 to Alaska Dispatch, an award of attorney costs and legal fees to the news outlet, which after years of post-election litigation prevailed in other aspects of the employment-records case. By then, the other media plaintiffs had dropped out.

Because the judgment is on appeal, Miller doesn't need to immediately pay Alaska Dispatch. But he does need to provide either a cash deposit or bond to the court in the amount of the disputed judgment. Miller has chosen to use cash, and has written a check from his campaign account for the amount.

In a draft opinion written in advance of Thursday's vote, the commission had concluded that “because the post-election phase of the litigation was inextricably linked to the initial lawsuit to release the documents...the post-election phase of the litigation would not have arisen irrespective of his candidacy” and that “the post-election timing of some of the litigation — including the portion accounting for most of the judgment against him — has no bearing on Miller’s ability to use campaign funds for his cash deposit.”

Political candidates are allowed to use campaign funds to cover legal bills that relate to their campaign or office, but not for personal use. Legal bills stemming from a divorce or DUI, for instance, are not covered. But a legal matter arising because of a person's role as either a candidate or an elected official could be. The FEC evaluates each situation on a case-by-case basis.

In its analysis of Miller's situation, the FEC found many examples of how the case related directly to his candidacy:

• The judge who released the employment records did so after ruling the public's right to evaluate Miller's fitness for office outweighed Miller's right to privacy;

• The post-election litigation continued because of Miller's efforts to find a source who supposedly leaked information to the media; and

• Miller never would have been involved in the litigation to begin with had he not been a candidate for office. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com