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Federal Election commission v. Craig For U.S. Senate

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 28, 2013

FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Plaintiff,
v.
CRAIG FOR U.S. SENATE, et al., Defendants

For FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Plaintiff: Anthony Herman, David Brett Kolker, Harry Jacobs Summers, Kevin Paul Hancock, Robert William Bonham, III, LEAD ATTORNEYS, FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Washington, DC.

For CRAIG FOR U.S. SENATE, LARRY E. CRAIG, KAYE L. O'RIORDAN, in her official capacity as Treasurer of Craig for U.S. Senate, Defendants: Andrew Dewald Herman, LEAD ATTORNEY, BRAND LAW GROUP, PC, Washington, DC.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

On June 2, 2012, the Federal Election Commission (" FEC" ) filed this action against Craig for U.S. Senate, its treasurer, Kaye L. O'Riordan, and former Senator Larry Craig himself. It seeks a declaration that Senator Craig and his campaign committee violated 2 U.S.C. § 439a(b), a subsection of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, when they utilized campaign funds to pay legal expenses incurred in connection with Senator Craig's efforts to withdraw the guilty plea he entered after an arrest for disorderly conduct in

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the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The FEC contends that the use of the funds for that purpose was an unlawful conversion of campaign funds to Senator Craig's personal use, and it seeks an order assessing civil penalties and requiring him to repay approximately $ 200,000. What is before the Court at this juncture is defendants' motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. In other words, defendants contend that even if one assumes the truth of all of the FEC's factual allegations, the complaint must be dismissed as a matter of law.

Defendants move to dismiss the action on two grounds. They argue: (1) that the use of campaign funds to satisfy Senator Craig's legal expenses was expressly permitted under the statute and not subject to the prohibition against personal use; and (2) that defendants should be immune from agency enforcement in this instance because they relied on FEC opinions approving the use of campaign funds in substantially similar situations.

The motion to dismiss will be denied. The Court rejects defendants' assertion that the expenditures were permitted under the Act since it concludes that they cannot be characterized as ordinary and necessary expenses in connection with Senator Craig's duties as an office holder. It also finds that the campaign funds were converted to Senator Craig's personal use as that term is defined in the Act because the expenses involved would have existed irrespective of his duties as a Senator. Defendants' contention that the spending was not personal is not supported by the language of the statute or the FEC's implementing regulations and advisory opinions, and it is flatly inconsistent with the stance Senator Craig adopted before the Senate Ethics Committee. Defendants' second argument -- that prior FEC opinions compel the dismissal of this action -- misstates the holding of those opinions, minimizes the key distinctions between those cases and the one before the Court, and disregards clear admonitory language in the very opinion that defendants insist bears most directly on this case. Therefore, the FEC has stated a valid claim that defendants violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from the complaint, and defendants do not dispute them for the purposes of their motion. Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 3-1] (" Defs.' Mem." ) at 3 n.2. Defendant Larry Craig was a United States Senator from Idaho from January 1991 to January 2009. Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶ 6. Craig for U.S. Senate (" Craig Committee" ) was authorized to receive campaign contributions and make expenditures on the Senator's behalf. Compl. ¶ 7. Defendant Kaye L. O'Riordan was the committee's treasurer, and she had authority to approve its expenditures. Compl. ¶ 8. The FEC is a United States government agency that has exclusive jurisdiction over the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. § § 431--57. Compl. ¶ 5. The Commission is empowered to institute investigations of possible violations of the Act and to initiate civil actions in the U.S. district courts to obtain judicial enforcement of the Act. Compl. ¶ 5, citing 2 U.S.C. § § 437g(a)(1)--(2), 437d(e), 437g(a)(6).

On June 11, 2007, Senator Craig was arrested in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he had stopped en route to Washington, D.C. Compl. ¶ 12. He was charged with violating two Minnesota criminal statues: (1) disturbing the peace-disorderly conduct, and (2) interference with privacy. Compl. ¶ 12. On August 8, 2007, Senator Craig pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct. Compl. ¶ 12; see also Craig v. State, No. A07-1949, 2008 WL 5136170, at *1 (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 9, 2008)

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(stating that Senator Craig pled guilty to engaging in conduct in a restroom in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which he " knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment or [sic] others, which conduct was physical (versus verbal) in nature" ).

On September 1, 2007, after Senator Craig's arrest and conviction had been the subject of national media attention, he announced his intent to resign from the Senate effective September 30, 2007. Compl. ¶ 15. He also retained the Washington, D.C. firm of Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan to serve as lead counsel in an effort to withdraw the guilty plea, and the Minnesota firm of Kelly & Jacobson to serve as local counsel in the matter. Compl. ¶ 13. On September 10, 2007, Senator Craig filed a motion in Minnesota state district court to withdraw his guilty plea. Compl. ¶ 14. The court denied the motion on October 4, 2007. Compl. ¶ 14. Craig appealed the district court's decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but that appeal was denied on December 9, 2008. Compl. ¶ 14. There were no further proceedings. Compl. ¶ 14. Between July 9, 2007 and October 5, 2008, the Craig Committee disbursed a total of over $ 480,000 for legal fees and other expenses. Compl. ¶ 18. At least $ 139,952 of this amount was paid to Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, and $ 77,032 was paid to Kelly & Jacobson, in connection with the efforts to withdraw the guilty plea. Compl. ¶ ¶ 19--20.

Eventually, the United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics (" Senate Ethics Committee" ) launched an investigation into Senator Craig's arrest, guilty plea, and subsequent actions. Compl. ¶ 16. During the course of this inquiry, Senator Craig advanced the position that his arrest and conviction were based upon " 'purely personal conduct unrelated to the performance of official Senate duties.'" Compl. ¶ 22, quoting Letter to the Honorable Barbara Boxer from Stanley M. Brand and Andrew D. Herman, Counsel to Larry Craig (Sept. 5, 2007) (" Letter to Senate Ethics Committee" ). On October 4, 2007, Senator Craig announced that he would not resign from office after all: " I will continue my effort to clear my name in the Senate Ethics Committee -- something that is not possible if I am not serving in the Senate." Compl. ¶ 17.

Senator Craig served out the remainder of his term and retired in January 2009. Compl. ¶ 17. On February 13, 2008, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a " Public Letter of Admonition," which stated that some portion of the Craig Committee's expenditures " may not be deemed to have been incurred in connection with our official duties, either by the [Senate Ethics] Committee or by the Federal Election Commission." Compl. ¶ 23.

On November 10, 2008, the FEC received an administrative complaint alleging that Senator Craig had violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by spending more than $ 213,000 in campaign funds to pay for legal fees and expenses incurred in connection with his attempts to undo his guilty plea. Compl. ¶ 24. The agency investigated the matter and attempts to resolve the issue with defendants and their representatives were unsuccessful. On June 11, 2012, the FEC filed this suit alleging that defendants violated 2 U.S.C. § 439a(b) when they disbursed more than $ 200,000 in campaign funds to pay legal expenses incurred in connection with efforts to withdraw Senator Craig's guilty plea in Minnesota in 2007 and 2008. Compl. ¶ ¶ 25--34.[1]

The FEC contends:

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These disbursements converted the Craig Committee's funds to personal use because they were not expenditures made in connection with Mr. Craig's campaign for federal office and were not ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with his duties as a Senator. The expenses Mr. Craig incurred in his efforts to with withdraw his guilty plea would have existed irrespective of his duties as Senator.

Compl. ¶ 33.

On August 2, 2012, defendants moved to dismiss this case for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 3] at 1. The FEC opposes the motion. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp. to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 5] (" Pl.'s Opp." ). The Court held a hearing on defendants' motion on March 11, 2013. Tr. of Mot. Hr'g [Dkt. # 9] (" Tr." ).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

" To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). In Iqbal, the Supreme Court reiterated the two principles underlying its decision in Twombly: " First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions." 556 U.S. at 678. And " [s]econd, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. at 679.

A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content " allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678. " The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. A pleading must offer more than " labels and conclusions" or a " formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action," id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and " [t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id.

When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint is construed liberally in plaintiff's favor, and the Court should grant plaintiff " the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276, 305 U.S. App. D.C. 60 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Nevertheless, the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, and it is not required to accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions. See id.; Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242, 352 U.S. App. D.C. 4 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In ruling upon a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court may ordinarily consider only " the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint, and matters about which the Court may take judicial notice." Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F.Supp.2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002) (citations omitted).

ANALYSIS

The FEC filed this action alleging that defendants violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. 439a(b), when Senator Craig used campaign funds to pay for legal expenses incurred in connection

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with his attempts to withdraw a guilty plea entered in Minnesota state court. Compl. ¶ 1. Defendants have moved to dismiss the action on two grounds. First, they argue that the use of campaign funds for the legal expenses was lawful under the statutory framework because it was " permitted" under 2 U.S.C. § 439a(a)(2), and not a prohibited " personal" expenditure under 2 U.S.C. § 439a(b). Second, they contend that they should be immune from agency enforcement in this instance because they relied on FEC advisory opinions approving the use of campaign funds in substantially similar situations. Neither of these arguments is persuasive.

I. The FEC Has Stated A Claim That Defendants Violated 2 U.S.C. ...


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