September 9, 1997
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
"Legal Expense Funds" and Contributions for
Legal Expenses in the House of Representatives
American Law Division
The permission to accept outside private donations, or to use campaign funds, to
defray the costs of certain legal expenses for Members and employees of the House of
Representatives, operates as an exception to, as well as guidance for, general statutory
and congressional rules prohibiting or restricting the receipt of gifts (5 U.S.C. § 7353;
House Rule 52), the use of "unofficial office accounts" (House Rule 45, 2 U.S.C. §
59e(d)(1)), and the use of campaign funds and contributions (House Rule 43(6), 2
U.S.C. § 439a).
Guidance from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as well as
regulations from the Federal Election Commission (F.E.C.), indicates that Members and
staff may establish "Legal Expense Funds" to receive private donations of funds
(including funds from a campaign committee), under specific regulations and limitations,
for use to defend against or to engage in certain legal actions connected with official
duties; that a Member may accept pro bono legal assistance to challenge the validity of
any federal law or regulation; and that the use by a Member of the House of campaign
funds for legal expenses connected to one's official duties, and not of a personal nature
(such as divorce, legal fees for real estate transactions, fees for defending charges of
driving under the influence, etc.), is permitted under federal election campaign laws and
regulations, and may be permitted under House Rules and regulations.
Regulations of the House Committee on Standards
Legal Expense Fund Regulations, adopted by the House Committee on Standards of
Official Conduct on June 10, 1996, require a Member or employee of the House to receive
prior written permission from the Committee on Standards to establish a Legal Expense
Fund. The gist of the regulations is that a Legal Expense Fund may not be established to
pay for merely personal legal expenses of a Member or employee, e.g., expenses for a
matter "primarily personal in nature (e.g. matrimonial action)"; but that a Member, officer
or employee of the House may establish such a Fund for legal expenses which arise in
connection with one's official duties and status, e.g., a Member's "candidacy for or election
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to federal office; the individual's official duties or position in Congress (including .... a
matter before the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct); a criminal prosecution;
or a civil matter bearing on the individual's reputation or fitness for office."1 In addition
to contributions for legal defense and other officially related matters, Members may also
accept pro bono legal assistance "without limitation" to file an amicus brief in a Member's
official capacity, or for "a civil action by a Member challenging the validity of a law or
A Legal Expense Fund must be set up as a trust, with an independent trustee (who
does not have a family, employment or business relationship to the beneficiary) who is to
"oversee fund raising." The trust document must be filed with the Legislative Resource
Center within a week of the Committee's approval of the trust document, and quarterly
reports and disclosures must be publicly made by the beneficiary of the trust, that is, the
Member or the employee, detailing any contribution from corporations or labor unions;
all contributions from any single source over $250 in a calendar year; and all expenditures
made exceeding $250 in a calendar year. The Legal Expense Fund may accept up to
$5,000 per year from an individual or an organization (including corporations, labor unions
and PACs), but may not accept funds from a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign
Use of Campaign Contributions: House Rules
In addition to the acceptance of pro bono legal assistance to challenge any federal law
or regulation, and/or the establishment of a Legal Expense Fund to accept private
monetary contributions for such purposes subject to the requirements and regulations of
the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, a Member of the House, under
federal campaign laws, appropriations provisions, and House Rules, may also use
campaign contributions to pay for certain expenses which are not "personal," and which
are not strictly "official," but which may arise in connection with one's position in Congress
and may be categorized in a broad classification as "political."
The Rules of the House at House Rule 43(6), Rule 45 (the unofficial office account
Rule), and what has been characterized by the House Committee on Standards of Official
Conduct as the statutory codification of Rule 45 in 1990,3 prohibit the use of private funds
or services, including campaign contributions, for "official" congressional expenses or for
House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, "Legal Expense Fund Regulations,"
Memorandum to All Members, Officers, and Employees, June 10, 1996, at 1, 2.
Legal Expense Fund Regulations, supra at ¶ 4. Since these regulations expressly provide
that a "Member, officer or employee" may accept pro bono legal assistance for challenging the
validity of a federal law or regulation, as opposed to providing that a "Legal Expense Fund" may
accept such services, as in other paragraphs of the regulations, the inference established is that
Members may accept such pro bono legal assistance in civil actions challenging federal regulations
even absent a Legal Expense Fund; and that the acceptance of such services by a Member is not
subject to the regulation's requirements and restrictions. The regulations note, however, that "[p]ro
bono legal assistance for other purposes" (such as, for example, legal defense of a Member or
employee), "shall be deemed a contribution subject to these restrictions." Id.
2 U.S.C. § 59e(d)(1); see House Ethics Manual, 102 Congress, 2d Session, at 274-275
"personal" expenses, but allow the use of campaign funds for either "campaign or political
purposes."4 As noted by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, there
is no express or exhaustive definition of an "official" expense, nor of what is a permitted
"political" use of campaign funds, and that "a Member has wide discretion in designating
a particular expenditure as political or official."5
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has stated that Members
may use campaign funds "to defend legal actions arising out of their campaign[s],
election[s] or the performance of their official duties,"6 and may use campaign funds for
such matters connected to one's official representational duties as "town meetings," as long
as official and "political"/campaign funds are not mixed in an event.7 Under the House
Committee on Standards of Official Conduct regulations it is also expressly set out that
campaign funds from a political committee (subject of course to campaign laws), may be
contributed to a Legal Expense Fund, as the House regulations expressly provide that such
a Fund could accept donations from "any organization," including specifically a political
action committee.8 Under such regulations and use guidelines, it appears that the uses of
political campaign contributions for those matters permitted within the Legal Expense
Fund guidelines are not to be considered prohibited "personal" or prohibited "official"
Campaign Contributions: Federal Law and Federal Election
As to the campaign laws cited to by the House Committee on Standards of Official
Conduct, the federal campaign laws prohibit the use of campaign funds for "personal"
purposes, but allow Members of Congress to use campaign funds to pay an "ordinary and
necessary expense incurred in connection with the duties of a holder of Federal office."
2 U.S.C. § 439a. (Emphasis added) The Federal Election Commission under its statutory
authority has issued regulations concerning impermissible "personal" uses of campaign
funds. The Federal Election Commission has noted in regulations that a prohibited
"personal use" of campaign funds, under 2 U.S.C. § 439a, is a use for an expense or
obligation "that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a Federal
officeholder" such as, for example, household food items or supplies, funeral expenses,
tuition payments, mortgages or rent on personal residences, or clothing (other than for
campaign slogan T-shirts or caps or the like).10 However, a Member of Congress or other
House Rule 43, ¶ 6.
House Ethics Manual, supra at 275; see House Committee on Standards, Advisory Opinion
Legal Expense Fund Regulations, supra.
House Ethics Manual, supra at 275, 296; Advisory Opinion No. 6.
Legal Expense Fund Regulations, supra at 2, ¶ 10.
As noted, the Legal Expense Fund regulations operate in effect as exemptions to both the
"gift" rule, as well as the Rule on unofficial office accounts (House Rule 45, 2 U.S.C. § 59e(d)).
See 11 C.F.R. § 113.1(g)(1)(i), as added at 60 F.R. 7874, February 9, 1995.
individual may use campaign funds to pay an "ordinary and necessary expense incurred in
connection with the duties of a holder of Federal office."11
Concerning legal expenses specifically, the F.E.C. has noted that it would determine
on a "case by case basis" whether the use of campaign funds for legal expenses is
"personal," or is related to the campaign, or is in connection with one's official duties.12
In an earlier explanation the F.E.C. noted that "personal" legal expenses would be
expenses such as those for "a divorce or charges of driving under the influence of
alcohol."13 The use of campaign funds for legal matters arising out of circumstances which
are not ones of a similarly "personal" nature as the examples given by the F.E.C., but
rather are connected with and related specifically to, or have arisen by virtue of, one's
position as a federal officeholder, thus appear to be permissible both under House Rules
and the Federal Election Commission regulations. The F.E.C. has noted that although it
has independent statutory authority to rule whether an expenditure from campaign
accounts is an improper "personal" use, as opposed to a proper campaign or officeholder
related use under 2 U.S.C. § 439a, "the Commission anticipates that, in most
circumstances ... officially connected expenses will be considered ordinary and necessary
expenses incurred in connection with the duties of a Federal officeholder, as that term is
used under the FECA," and that therefore the Commission does not expect significant
conflicts in interpreting permissible "political" or "officially connected" expenses from the
interpretations of permitted expenditures from campaign accounts by the House and
Senate ethics committees.14 All expenditures and dispositions of campaign funds over a
minimum amount must be accounted for and publicly reported under federal campaign law.
2 U.S.C. § 434.
2 U.S.C. § 439a, see also 11 C.F.R. 113.1(g)(5), 60 F.R. 7875, supra.
11 C.F.R. § 113.1(g)(1)(ii)(A).
See 60 F.R. 7868, supra.
See 60 F.R. 7871, February 9, 1995.
Memorandum to All Members, Officers, and Employees
Committee on Standards of Official Conduct
Nancy L. Johnson, Chairman
Jim McDermott, Ranking Democratic Member
Legal Expense Fund Regulations
June 10, 1996
The new gift rule exempts "a contribution or other payment to a legal expense fund
established for the benefit of a Member, officer, or employee that is otherwise lawfully made in
accordance with the restrictions and disclosure requirements of the Committee on Standards of
Official Conduct," as long as the contribution is not from a registered lobbyist or an agent of a
foreign principal (House Rule 52, clause 1(c)(5)). In light of this new rule, and pursuant to its
authority thereunder, the Committee hereby issues regulations explaining its "restrictions and
disclosure requirements" for legal expense funds. The regulations set forth below supersede the
Committee's prior policies under the old gift rule 1 and take effect as of July 1, 1996. The prior
policies remain in effect until that date.
Legal Expense Fund Regulations
1. A Member, officer, or employee who wishes to solicit and/or receive donations, in cash or in
kind, to pay legal expenses shall obtain the prior written permission of the Committee on Standards
of Official Conduct.2
2. The Committee shall grant permission to establish a Legal Expense Fund only where the legal
expenses arise in connection with: the individual's candidacy for or election to federal office; the
individual's official duties or position in Congress (including legal expenses incurred in connection
with an amicus brief filed in a Member's official capacity, a civil action by a Member challenging
the validity of a law or federal regulation, or a matter before the Committee on Standards of
Official Conduct); a criminal prosecution; or a civil matter bearing on the individual's reputation
or fitness for office.
3. The Committee shall not grant permission to establish a Legal Expense Fund where the legal
expenses arise in connection with a matter that is primarily personal in nature (e.g., a matrimonial
4. A Member, officer, or employee may accept pro bono legal assistance without limit to file an
amicus brief in his or her capacity as a Member of Congress or to bring a civil action challenging
the validity of any federal law or regulation. Pro bono legal assistance for other purposes shall be
deemed a contribution subject to the restrictions of these regulations.
5. A Legal Expense Fund shall be set up as a trust, administered by an independent trustee, who
shall oversee fund raising.
6. The trustee shall not have any family, business, or employment relationship with the trust's
1. See House Ethics Manual, 102d Cong., 2d Sess. 49-50 (1992).
2. Permission is not required to solicit and/or receive a donation in any amount from a relative or a donation of up to $250
from a personal friend.
7. Trust funds shall be used only for legal expenses (and expenses incurred in soliciting for and
administering the trust), except that any excess funds shall be returned to contributors. Under no
circumstances may the beneficiary of a Legal Expense Fund convert the funds to any other
8. A Legal Expense Fund shall not accept more than $5,000 in a calendar year from any
individual or organization.
9. A Legal Expense Fund shall not accept any contribution from a registered lobbyist or an
agent of a foreign principal.
10. Other than as specifically barred by law or regulation, a Legal Expense Fund may accept
contributions from any individual or organization, including a corporation, labor union, or political
action committee (PAC).
11. No contribution shall be solicited for or accepted by a Legal Expense Fund prior to the
Committee's written approval of the completed trust document (including the name of the trustee).
12. Within one week of the Committee's approval of the trust document, the beneficiary shall file
a copy of the trust document with the Legislative Resource Center (1036 Longworth House Office
Building) for public disclosure.
13. The beneficiary of a Legal Expense Fund shall report to the Committee on a quarterly basis,
with a copy filed for public disclosure at the Legislative Resource Center:
a) any donation to the Fund from a corporation or labor union;
b) any contribution (or group of contributions) exceeding $250 in a calendar year from any
other single source; and
c) any expenditure from the Fund exceeding $250 in a calendar year.
Beginning October 30, 1996, these reports shall be due as follows:
January 1 -- March 31
April 1 -- June 30
July 1 -- September 30
October 1 -- December 31
14. Any Member or employee who established a Legal Expense Fund prior to July 1, 1996 shall
make any necessary modifications to the trust document to bring it into compliance with these
regulations and shall disclose the trust document with his or her first quarterly report of the 105th
Congress on January 30, 1997. Reports of receipts and expenditures shall be due beginning
October 30, 1996, as stated in paragraph 13, above.
Use of Campaign Funds for Legal Expenses
This Committee has stated (in the 1992 Ethics Manual) that Members may use campaign
funds to defend legal actions arising out of their campaign, election, or the performance of their
official duties. More recently, however, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued regulations
defining impermissible personal uses of campaign funds, including using campaign funds for
certain legal expenses. Any Member contemplating the use of campaign funds for the direct
payment of legal expenses or for contribution to a legal expense fund should first contact the FEC.
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