Financial records for two Florida congresspeople indicate that legal expense funds associated with their offices were created in order to defray legal costs that arise “in connection with [their] official duties and position in Congress” — so why is that money being used to sue to block a Florida constitutional amendment that will handicap politicians’ ability to gerrymander districts?
The day after 63 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 6 at the polls, Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, filed suit to block the implementation of it, one of two so-called “Fair Districts” amendments that limit the state legislature’s ability to draw district lines that protect incumbents and guarantee one-party control.
Both Brown and Diaz-Balart are minorities who represent districts where the majority of citizens are minorities. Brown’s constituency is 50 percent African-American. Diaz-Balart (who jumped districts this year to take the place of his retiring brother) will soon represent a district that is 70 percent Latino.
Their districts, which group together minority voices at the expense of geographic logic, are indicative of the problems with the current system that Amendments 5 and 6 were created to correct. (Amendment 5 deals with state legislative districts; 6 with congressional lines.)
The NAACP, which supported 5 and 6, has accused Brown and Diaz-Balart of seeking to “protect their political status by trying to avoid having any rules to stop them from continuing to draw districts that serve themselves rather than the people of this great state.”
After Brown and Diaz-Balart filed suit, questions quickly emerged about whose money is funding the representatives’ legal action — questions that only deepen after an examination of the records of Brown and Diaz-Balart’s legal expense funds.
The documents — which are only accessible in Washington, D.C., and were obtained by our sister site The American Independent — include a letter from Brown notifying the House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of her intention to create her legal expense fund, as well as incorporation documents showing both funds’ guidelines and contribution and expense records. You can read them in full here (.pdf).
On May 15, Brown wrote to the Standards committee requesting approval to form the Corrine Brown Legal Expense Trust to accept “contributions for legal fees and expenses incurred … in connection with [her] official duties and position in Congress.”
Does suing to block a popular amendment really qualify as one of Brown’s “official duties”?
“That was looked at by the ethics legal staff, and unanimously they said it clearly does because it clearly affects Congress,” says Diaz-Balart. Brown’s office did not respond to multiple calls asking for further information about her legal expense fund.
“I think one could raise questions about whether this is a legitimate trust fund expense,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director at The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit analysis group based in Washington, D.C. She says there are few limits on what congresspeople can pay for with their legal expense dollars.
“The rules are interpreted very broadly, and members of Congress have wide discretion in using those terms,” McGehee says. “You can’t pay for your divorce, but anything beyond the very basic expenses, you’re going to get away with using that money however you want.”
“These trust funds are similar to leadership PACs,” McGehee adds. “They essentially create another pocket for special interests to funnel money to members of Congress.”
The special interests paying Brown and Diaz-Balart’s legal expenses include the insurance, phosphate, transportation, real estate, and sugar industries — who often funnel their contributions through Florida political committees associated with state legislators.
The situation is not unique to Florida. ”Redistricting is kind of the Wild West of political money,” McGehee says.
Along with her letter to the House Standards Committee, Brown sent a “Trust Agreement” dated May 17. The document lays out the details of how her trust would operate, details that appear to have been lifted wholesale from a similar document filed by Diaz-Balart 10 days earlier.
Brown’s filing even includes a mistaken reference to Diaz-Balart’s trust, suggesting the paragraph in question was copied directly from Diaz-Balart’s original, with haphazard editing:
[All property,] whether real, personal or mixed, delivered, payable to or contributed to the Corrine Brown Legal Expense Trust shall be held by the Trustee, in trust for the sole and specific purposed and on the conditions hereafter set forth in paragraph 2, below. This Trust shall be known as the Mario Diaz-Balart Legal Expense Trust. [Emphasis added.]
The relevant paragraph from the Diaz-Balart document is almost identical:
[All property,] whether real, personal or mixed, delivered, payable to or contributed to the Mario Diaz-Balart Legal Expense Trust shall be held by the Trustee, in trust for the sole and specific purposed and on the conditions hereafter set forth in paragraph 2, below. This Trust shall be known as the Mario Diaz-Balart Legal Expense Trust. [Emphasis added.]
To what extent did Brown and Diaz-Balart work together to set up their funds? “Corrine Brown and I are in this redistricting issue together, and we coordinate very closely,” Diaz-Balart says when asked that question. “I venture to say, and I don’t quite recall, but even when we were asking for the opinion whether we could do this, that was done jointly.”
Diaz-Balart calls the process of setting up a legal expense fund “strongly regulated,” and says that he worked with Brown “in consultation with” the House Standards committee. “They told us how to do it,” he says. “It’s obviously totally above-board,” Diaz-Balart stresses that his account and Brown’s are separate and that the two have not put on joint fundraisers.
“Is there a legal problem with coordination? No. Is there an ethical problem? That’s a good question,” McGehee says. “You have a situation where members of Congress from opposite parties are working hand-in-glove to protect their seats. … It reveals the game that’s being played here.”
Ten days after Brown asked the House Standards committee for approval to form her trust, she and Diaz-Balart filed their first lawsuit — attempting to convince a judge to block Amendment 6 from appearing on Florida’s Nov. 2 ballot.
That effort failed in August, but as Brown and Diaz-Balart’s more recent legal action shows, they’re not giving up. Their next day in court comes in February.
Diaz-Balart remains confident that Amendment 6 will go down, citing what he sees as a host of contradictory provisions in the measure that will make it impossible to implement. “You’re in violation of the state constitution whatever you do,” he says. “I think that the federal courts are going to throw this thing out.”