Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock (GA) used his campaign cash to fund his legal expenses for a lawsuit relating to his time as a church minister, not as a Senate candidate, ultimately raising questions concerning the legality of spending campaign funds for personal use, a Politico report revealed.
Politico’s Natalie Allison wrote that Warnock used campaign cash to cover the legal expenses for a lawsuit relating to his time as a church minister in 2005. The case was filed in 2019 by an Atlanta resident, Melvin Robertson, with allegations dating back to 2005.
However, it was dismissed by a Georgia federal court judge before any of the defendants were served.
But Politico reported that Robertson filed a similar lawsuit in April 2021 against the senator and the church where he was a pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, along with other public figures.
Now that he is serving in the Senate, Warnock has retained Elias Law Group — his campaign attorneys — to represent him in the case with another Atlanta-based firm, Krevolin & Horst. Politico explained that the relevant legal question is whether he improperly used campaign funds, which would violate federal ethics laws.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) allows campaign money to be spent on “litigation expenses where the candidate/officeholder was the defendant and the litigation arose directly from campaign activity or the candidate’s status as a candidate,” but not on personal use, which is what experts are debating.
Caleb Burns, an attorney with D.C.-based Wiley Rein LLC specializing in election law, said the applicable legal standard is the “irrespective test” from the FEC, which says “expenses that would exist irrespective of a candidate’s status as a candidate or officeholder.”
“The rationale for this prohibition is to honor the campaign contributors’ intent that their contributions be used for political purposes and not, for example, to relieve the candidate of a personal obligation,” Burns told Politico.
Instead, Warnock’s campaign insists that since the second lawsuit was filed while he was in office in 2021, it was “permissible.”
“This frivolous lawsuit against Senator Reverend Warnock and other public officials was served at his official office and is based on laws that only apply to him because of his status as a sitting office holder,” prominent Democrat election law attorney who represents the senator’s campaign, Marc Elias, told Politico. “It’s completely legal and appropriate to have used campaign funds on this legal matter, as many federal office holders have done before. Any suggestion otherwise is completely false.”
Politico’s Allison added:
The Robertson lawsuit likely amounts to a small fraction of the work Elias Law Group has done for Warnock’s campaign. The campaign has paid Elias Law Group $66,000 since October, according to FEC disclosures. Before that, Warnock for Georgia paid Perkins Coie, the firm from which Mark Elias and other attorneys split, $210,000 between July 2020 and December 2021.
Warnock’s campaign paid Krevolin & Horst, another firm listed in Warnock’s filings in the case, $1,183 — meaning the firm likely has not done extensive work for Warnock’s campaign other than handling the Robertson case.
No one regards the lawsuit as substantive. Among other things, Robertson accuses Warnock of somehow conspiring with the city of Atlanta to entrap him and participating in schemes involving a business where Robertson once worked. He also complains about his personal belongings being lost in a storage locker and about his discomfort while attending one of Warnock’s church services long ago.
A Republican political law attorney who served as Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign counsel and to the Republican National Committee, Charlie Spies, explained to Politico that the relevant question is whether Warnock would have encountered the same expenses as a private citizen, which he answers “yes.”
“If Warnock is using campaign money to pay for a lawsuit that predates his running for office, then by definition, it existed irrespective of his candidacy and would be impermissible to use campaign funds on,” Spies said.
“Personal use… [is] something the FEC is particularly focused on,” Spies alluded. “The seriousness of the violation will depend on whether the FEC considers it to be knowing and willful.”
Spies said that he does not think Warnock’s donors are filling his campaign coffers to be used for personal lawsuits and that if the FEC determines he violated its rules, the case could potentially be resolved by him paying a fraction of the costs.