WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Don Young has spent more than $1.1 million on lawyers who have helped fend off Justice Department investigations, according to a campaign spending report filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission.
Young crossed the million-dollar threshold earlier this year, when his campaign wrote checks for $93,725 and $119,004 in legal fees to Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld.
Young paid the legal bills from his campaign account even after he established a separate legal expense fund this winter to help pay for lawyers. He has until April 30 to disclose the activity in that account.
Young, a Republican who has held office since 1973, still won't say why he spends so much on lawyers or exactly what they are doing for him. Young, who held a combative news conference in February, said he wished he could speak his mind. He can't, he said in a statement released Tuesday, because "both the Department of Justice and my lawyers have asked that I not comment further on the investigation. I MUST honor this request," using capital letters for emphasis.
"Many people have been concerned about my legal fees and I do not take their concerns lightly," he added. "I have learned that the legal process is an expensive process, but I have nothing to hide. When it comes to my family and my character, the truth is priceless. That is exactly why I hired good legal counsel, and I have worked fully with the Department of Justice by answering their questions and providing them with anything they have requested."
Young has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but he is connected to several ongoing investigations. They include an FBI probe into his ties to a Florida developer who held a fundraiser for Young in 2005 and then landed an earmark in the highway bill the congressman was shepherding through Congress when he chaired the House Transportation committee. The $10 million earmark, originally slated for the widening of Interstate 75, was shifted toward a study of an interchange instead.
The FBI interviewed community activists who said they felt an interchange at Coconut Road and I-75 would allow the development of environmentally sensitive land owned by Daniel Aronoff, a developer who organized the March 2005 fundraiser in Bonita Springs, Fla.
Like other Alaska politicians, Young also has ties to the wide-ranging federal corruption probe into fundraising practices by the former oil-services company Veco and its chief executive, Bill Allen.
Allen, a major political fundraiser, pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers and has been a witness in the ongoing corruption investigation. Until this year, Allen and Veco executives were Young's largest source of campaign contributions.
Young also has had several connections to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now serving a federal sentence and assisting the FBI and a team of federal prosecutors in an ongoing investigation of influence peddling in Washington.
Young has not been identified as a subject of the investigation, but one of his top Transportation committee aides, former Alaskan Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with Abramoff by taking cash and expensive gifts and helping his clients get projects. Zachares, who's also cooperating with prosecutors, was placed in his job by Abramoff, according to his plea. Young has refused to publicly explain how that happened.
Young's lead attorney, Washington defense counsel John Dowd, did not return calls Tuesday. Young's campaign spokesman, Mike Anderson, said that the bulk of the legal expenses has been for lawyers who are reviewing Young's congressional papers to determine whether they are privileged under the separation of powers doctrine, or whether they must be turned over to federal investigators. The Constitution protects some activities of Congress from executive branch officials like FBI agents or U.S. attorneys, though the privilege is not absolute.
Legal expenses have continued to eat away at Young's campaign coffers, even as challengers have filed to run against him. He faces two Republicans in the August 26 primary: state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Neither candidate has raised as much money as Young, but his once-healthy campaign account has dwindled down to $604,268, with more money going out than coming in.
If Young prevails in the primary, he'll face one of three Democrats in the race. The leading fundraiser, former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, raised twice as much money as Young. With $287,306 in the bank, Berkowitz continues to gain on Young.
Young's most recent campaign finance report shows that of the $252,293 he spent on legal bills, $212,752 went to Akin Gump. Young paid another $24,520 to another Washington firm, Tobin O'Connor & Ewing. He also paid $15,020 to John Wolfe of Seattle, a criminal defense attorney who has represented Ben Stevens, the son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, in the federal corruption probe in Alaska.
Lawmakers are allowed to spend campaign donations on legal expenses as long as they're connected to their role as officeholders.
Young's separate legal expense fund allows supporters to give up to $5,000 in addition to the $4,600 that individuals also can donate to his campaign. Unlike an election campaign, though, lobbyists are barred from contributing to the legal expense fund. He can accept money from corporations, which cannot donate money directly to campaigns.
REIMBURSING BILL ALLEN
The latest report has an unusual reference to an effort by Young to reimburse old fundraising expenses paid by Veco on his behalf.
According to Anderson, who is also Young's chief of staff, the campaign decided to take a close look at past fundraising expenses after the 2006 election. One reason for the self-examination was the defeat in California of one of Young's closest Republican colleagues in the House, Richard Pombo. Anderson said Pombo was weakened by third-party attacks and Young's campaign officials wanted to guard against Young being similarly vulnerable in 2008.
In reviewing the campaign's expenses for 2006, they discovered they weren't properly billed by Veco for its annual pig roast on Young's behalf, Anderson said. With that discovery, campaign officials looked back several more years -- he didn't know how many -- and determined that Veco or Allen needed to be reimbursed $37,626. A check was sent to Bill Allen in January 2007, the campaign reported.
Anderson said the audit and the reimbursement occurred months before it was known that Allen was cooperating with federal investigators. Allen and Veco vice president Rick Smith pleaded guilty in May 2007, more than eight months after they secretly began working for the FBI.
Young's most recent report said that Allen never cashed the reimbursement check. This January, the campaign gave the money instead to the U.S. Treasury.
Reporter Richard Mauer contributed to this report. Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad or call in Washington, D.C., at 202-383-6104.
Young's legal fees
1st quarter $25,000
2nd quarter $177,886
3rd quarter $245,457
4th quarter $423,672
1st quarter $252,293
Source: Young's reports to Federal Elections Commission