As soon as Joe Arpaio launched his campaign for Senate, skeptics immediately deemed it a "cash grab" intended to help the former sheriff pay off his legal bills.
It's no secret that Arpaio has been begging for donations ever since he got kicked out of office. In August, immediately after receiving a presidential pardon, he (or someone on his team) sent an email to supporters claiming that he still had "tens of thousands" in legal bills. A few months later, another fundraising email upped that total to "hundreds of thousands in legal defense debt."
But could he use campaign contributions to get rid of some of that debt?
"The answer is probably not," Lawrence Noble, senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, confirmed.
The Federal Election Commission bans candidates from spending campaign funds for their own personal use, Noble explains. Whether legal expenses are considered to be a personal use is determined on a case-by-case basis. In the past, the FEC has allowed campaign money to be spent on legal bills only in cases where, in the commission's words, "such expenses would not have occurred had the individual not been a candidate or officeholder."
That mean that you can't use campaign donations to pay for your divorce or your DUI. But you can use them to hire a lawyer if you're faced with a petition challenge, or charged with a campaign finance violation.
Arpaio's legal problems don't meet that standard, since they have nothing to do with his Senate campaign. Yes, he was an officeholder when he got sued for racial profiling and a slew of other abuses. But he held a local and not a federal office, so it doesn't count.
"Those legal battles, to me, would plainly be a personal use," said Jim Barton, a Tempe-based attorney who specializes in campaign finance law compliance. "It seems pretty obvious he could not use it for that."
In some cases, the FEC's website notes, candidates can use donations to pay up to 50 percent of legal bills that don't directly relate to their campaigns — "if the candidate or officeholder is required to provide substantive responses to the press regarding the allegations of wrongdoing."
That seems like a major loophole that Arpaio could potentially take advantage of, since there's no question that reporters will ask him about the millions of dollars that he's cost Maricopa County over the years due to his refusal to acknowledge this thing that we like to call "civil rights."
But if Arpaio were to try it, Barton argues, he'd have to disclose that information in his public FEC filings. And that would almost certainly lead to a complaint — which, for the record, is something anyone can file if they believe they've spotted a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
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"I would certainly tell him that you can’t use the money for that, and I think many lawyers would," Barton concluded.
Daniel Weiner, a former FEC staffer who now works as senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, points out that the campaign finance world looks a lot like the Wild West these days. Still, he says, the rules governing the proper use of campaign funds are still relatively intact.
"If Sheriff Joe were thinking of a way to raise money to pay off his legal debts, I would suspect there would be easier and less perilous ways to do it than a fictitious run for the Senate, which he might actually win," he cautioned.
Then again, this is someone who got charged with criminal contempt of court because he literally refused to stop racially profiling Latinos. Since when does he care about following the law?