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Pols and Legal Defense

Should pols be able to spend campaign funds on their own legal defense? They do. And they shouldn't.

Among the many things wrong with Pennsylvania's campaign finance laws -- most notably that there is no limit on the amount an individual, party or PAC can give a candidate -- is allowing pols charged with crimes to use money raised for elections to pay for legal defense.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday reports, for example, that convicted state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Pittsburgh, spent more than $100,000 in campaign contributions to pay her lawyer, William Costopoulos.

Orie is scheduled to be sentenced May 21 on 14 criminal counts related to using her office and taxpayer resources for political campaign purposes for herself and her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

This is nothing new in the Keystone State. Lots of pols are similiarly charged. And lots use campaign money for defense. We are national leader in both public corruption and loosey-goosey campaign laws.

Former state Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow of Scranton spent $738,000 on legal defense. He has agreed to plead guilty to charges related to using his office to raise campaign funds. And former Philly Senate Democrat Vince Fumo, serving a federal prison term on charges related to doing whatever he wanted to do, spent a reported $1.1 million in campaign money for part of his legal defense.

On one hand, pols can argue they raised the money, they can use it as they see fit. On the other hand, campaign funds are supposed to be used to influence elections -- not judges or juries.

(Oh, and by the way, when sitting members of the Legislature are being investigated, your tax dollars can be used to protect them until they are formally charged. In Pennsylvania, as you might imagine, that's a bill you run up fairly often.)

It's time, given the regularity with which our lawmakers are caught in illegalities, to tighten up campaign finance laws, put limits on contributions and specifically ban the use of campaign money for criminal defense.

Seems to me one deterent to in-office criminal behavior could be the certainty that if you're caught you are (financially) on your own.