During the final weeks of the 2013 legislative session, Robert J. Rodriguez, a state assemblyman from Harlem, went out drinking with friends one night and was later arrested and charged with drunken driving. Mr. Rodriguez eventually pleaded guilty, losing his driver’s license for at least six months. But the monetary cost to Mr. Rodriguez was far less: His campaign not only picked up the roughly $8,500 in legal bills — it also paid his $900 penalty, records show. Mr. Rodriguez’s case, while extreme, is one of many examples where New York lawmakers have used campaign funds to pay for lawyers, often lawyers who specialize in criminal defense. The New York Times examined the spending of 41 elected officials who have been connected to a scandal or investigation since 2005; those 41 politicians have spent at least $7 million of campaign funds on legal fees, based on a review of Board of Elections filings from 2005 to the present.
The recent rash of arrests and convictions of Albany lawmakers has intensified the practice: Since mid-January, state lawmakers either accused of wrongdoing or simply caught up in a broader scandal have spent at least $1.9 million in campaign funds to cover their legal fees.
State election laws require that the funds be used for a lawful purpose, and that they be related to a “political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”
Lawmakers typically argue that the nature and requirement of their jobs place them in situations where they are legally vulnerable, so their legal bills should be covered by their campaigns.