Sen. Raphael Warnock has been accused of misusing campaign funds to try to defend himself against a federal lawsuit arising from his tenure as a pastor, according to a report released on July 6th.
The resident of Atlanta, Melvin Robertson, initially sued Warnock (D-Ga.) in 2019. The allegations stemmed from 2005 when Warnock led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the city. That lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in Georgia without either defendant being served, Politico reported.
Robertson filed a lawsuit again in April 2021, making the same allegations against Warnock and naming the church and other public officials as defendants, according to the report.
Warnock used some of his campaign lawyers from Elias Law Group to defend him in the case, as well as the Atlanta-based firm Krevolin & Horst.
In accordance with the Federal Election Commission, campaign money can only be used on “litigation expenses where the candidate/officeholder was the defendant and the litigation arose directly from campaign activity or the candidate’s status as a candidate.”
“The rationale for this prohibition is to honor the campaign contributors’ intent that their contributions be used for political purposes and not, for example, to relieve the candidate of a personal obligation,” Caleb Burns, a lawyer specializing in election law, told Politico.
The officials with Warnock’s campaign said they thought they were free to use the funds because the lawsuit was brought while Warnock was a senator – and was serving in his Senate office in Georgia’s capital.
“It’s completely legal and appropriate to have used campaign funds on this legal matter, as many federal office holders have done before. Any suggestion otherwise is completely false,” powerful Democratic attorney Marc Elias told Politico in a statement.
However, notes the outlet, when the legal team representing Warnock tried to have the suit dismissed last year, it pointed out that Robertson’s claims “relate to actions purportedly taken in 2005 and 2008, when he [Warnock] was not a federal employee.”
“If Warnock is using campaign money to pay for a lawsuit that predates his running for office, then by definition it existed irrespective of his candidacy and would be impermissible to use campaign funds on,” Republican attorney Charlie Spies contended to Politico. Later he added: “I don’t think his donors are giving for him to fund personal lawsuits.”
The consequences for Warnock’s campaign will depend on whether the FEC determines that “knowing and willful” violations occurred, with only a fine being the most plausible outcome.
Warnock is set to head into a tight battle in November against Republican Herschel Walker. The race is already turning ugly, with Democrats accusing Walker of violating campaign finance laws by exceeding spending limits for unannounced candidates before he officially filed for office.
The Walker campaign is also being accused of trying to coordinate with the re-election effort of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on a string of political ads without disclosing their involvement.
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