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Pete Sessions Incurs Legal Bills — And Opponent's Criticism — In Campaign To Return To Congress

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions
Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune
Former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions announces his candidacy for the 17th District at McLennan County Republican Party Headquarters Oct. 3, 2019, in Waco, Texas.

As Pete Sessions seeks a return to Congress, he has spent over $80,000 in campaign funds on legal fees, illuminating a wrinkle in campaign finance law while drawing increasing criticism from his Republican primary runoff opponent.

Sessions has not said what exactly the legal fees are for, but most have gone to a veteran criminal defense attorney in Dallas, and they began in October, the same month his name surfaced in the Ukraine scandal that led to President Donald Trump's impeachment. Sessions has not been formally accused of anything and has denied any wrongdoing.

The Federal Election Commission generally allows campaign funds to be used for legal fees as long as the expenses are related to one's time serving in office or running for it. It is not certain whether Sessions' legal expenses fit that criteria without further detail from him or investigation by the FEC, which currently lacks the ability to meet.

Regardless, Sessions' runoff rival, Renee Swann, and her supporters say voters deserve to know more about what they may be getting into if they send Sessions to Congress again.

"In the past few months alone, Pete Sessions has spent more on criminal defense lawyers than most folks earn in a year," Swann campaign manager Michael Blair said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "Donors and voters should know, Pete apparently wants to go back to Washington so he can keep paying for his on-going legal problems. Central Texans deserve better than to elect someone with such massive legal issues that he needs teams of criminal defense lawyers."

The legal fees make up 13% of Sessions' campaign spending through March 31. Over the same six-month period, Sessions' campaign took in $434,704, a total that includes $90,000 in personal loans that he made after most of the legal expenses.

Sessions and Swann are running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, in his solidly red Central Texas seat, meaning whoever wins the July 14 runoff is likely to be the next member of Congress from the district. There is also a runoff underway on the Democratic side, between Rick Kennedy and David Anthony Jaramillo.

Sessions' campaign declined to comment on the situation other than to point to an FEC advisory opinion from 2007 that gave a former congressman the green light to spend campaign dollars on legal expenses because they stemmed from his duties as an officeholder.

More broadly, the spat over the legal fees shines a light on the cloud that has hung over Sessions since he launched his campaign in early October. On the day he announced he was running, the Wall Street Journal reported that, while Sessions was the chairman of the House Rules Committee, he advocated for the ouster of the then-ambassador to Ukraine, saying he had been told that she had privately shown signs of bias against the president. Days later, it was reported he was the unnamed congressman in an indictment against two business associates of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani. The associates, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, were accused of making illegal contributions benefitting the unnamed congressman in 2018 in an effort to get help with the ouster of the ambassador.

In his response to the indictment, Sessions did not confirm he was the unnamed congressman but said he did not do anything wrong and pointed out that the charges said the "defendants concealed the scheme from the candidates, campaigns and federal regulators."

"Therefore, if I am ‘Congressman One,’ I could not have had any knowledge of the scheme described in the indictment or have involvement or coordination of it," Sessions said in a statement at the time.

Months later Trump was impeached by the U.S. House — and later acquitted by the Senate — in part on allegations that he pressured Ukraine to investigated the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

As of Sessions' latest campaign finance report — which came out last month and goes through March 31 — Sessions has spent $82,590 on legal fees, with nearly $68,000 going to the Dallas lawyer, Barry Sorrels, and the rest to Berke Farah, a Washington, D.C., law firm whose specialty is campaign finance law.

Sorrels has not responded to a request for comment on his apparent representation of Sessions.

Voters will not get to see the candidates' finances again until July 2, four days before early voting begins for the runoff.

Federal law bans the personal use of campaign funds, though when it comes to legal fees, the FEC evaluates "on a case-by-case basis" whether they meet that prohibition. Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the government watchdog group Common Cause, said the FEC's criteria has been "pretty well-established" over the years.

"It’s permissible for a federal officeholder or candidate to use campaign funds to pay any legal expenses that result either from their status as a candidate or as an officeholder," Ryan said.

On the face of it, Ryan said, Sessions' situation "doesn't strike me as an example of a very close call," if he is indeed using campaign funds in regard to the Ukraine matter — a matter that relates to his campaign and time in office by all appearances. Still, Sessions has not confirmed that.

One prominent example associated with campaign funds and a legal defense involved former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who was arrested in 2017 and accused of soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Craig used campaign funds to try to withdraw his initial guilty plea, which the FEC argued was personal use because the case had no connection to his status as an officeholder. The courts ultimately sided with the FEC.

"You're not allowed to treat your campaign like a personal piggy bank," said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Brennan Center fellow who was written about politicians using campaign funds for personal use.

Campaign finance experts say there are at least two ways the Sessions situation could be cleared up: Sessions' campaign could have sought an advisory opinion from the FEC, or someone could file a complaint with the commission. However, neither of those methods would see resolution any time soon — the FEC has lacked a quorum for eight months, depriving it of its ability to issue advisory opinions and act on complaints.

"The closer we get [to an election], the lack of a functioning body that can give reliable answers to questions — it’s a problem for all of the participants," said Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy at the Campaign Legal Center.

All that suggests Sessions' use of campaign funds for legal fees will remain more of a political problem than legal one ahead of the July runoff.

The battles lines for the race became clear as soon as Sessions' plan to run came out last fall. Sessions had long represented a Dallas-based district before losing reelection in 2018 to now-U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas. A Waco native, Sessions decided to move south and stage his comeback bid in a more GOP-friendly district, a decision that immediately drew the ire of Flores, who has made clear he wants a more homegrown candidate to succeed him. To that end, he donated to a group of non-Sessions candidates in the primary and eventually endorsed Swann, a Waco businesswoman.

Sessions largely avoided attacks over the Ukraine controversy during the primary, which featured 11 other candidates on the ballot.

Sessions finished first in the primary with 32% of the vote and Swann with 19%. Since then, Sessions has won endorsements from four of his former opponents, including close third-place finisher George Hindman, while Swann has been backed by two of her ex-rivals. One of them, Trent Sutton, brought up Sessions' campaign spending on legal fees in his endorsement statement, saying it is "clear to me that Central Texas and the Brazos Valley would not be well served by a self-interested career politician who is also in legal jeopardy."

Then, after the latest campaign finance reports were released, Swann's campaign issued a news release comparing its filing with Sessions', noting, among other things, that he "continues to use donors to pay for his on-going legal difficulties." Sessions' campaign countered the next day with a news release responding to many of the comparisons that Swann's team made but did not address the jab over his legal bills.

"My opponent’s campaign style of constant negative attack is why four of her peers from the March Republican Primary have endorsed me in this runoff," Sessions said in the release, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic that was starting to bear down back then. "If there was ever a time when the nation needs to move away from typical political sniping, surely it is today."

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.