WASHINGTON -- Should a prominent law and lobbying firm be able to forgive nearly half a million dollars in debt incurred by a sitting U.S. congressman for a failed mayoral campaign? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is debating its ruling in a case that has gone on since 2008.
If the court gives the lawyers the go-ahead, that would seem to be a positive development for Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.). But there might be bad news buried in that good news.
The state Supreme Court is considering whether Cozen O'Connor, a major corporate law firm with a Washington lobbying shop, should be allowed to forgive $450,000 owed by Brady's 2007 campaign for Philadelphia mayor. Brady, labeled the city's "Democratic boss" by Philadelphia magazine, hired the firm to fight a challenge to his appearance on the Democratic primary ballot. The firm won that case, although Brady lost the primary.
Now Cozen O'Connor contends that it should be allowed to forgive the Brady campaign's debt, even though $450,000 far exceeds the limits on campaign contributions under the relevant state and city laws. That shouldn't be a problem, the firm argues, because as a post-election donation, the sum is not covered by those campaign limits -- at least as the law applied in 2007. Moreover, the firm argues, fighting a ballot access challenge wasn't really a campaign expense at all because the work wasn't directed at influencing the outcome of an election.
The lower appeals court did not find these arguments persuasive. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the case in mid-February.
Depending on how the latter court rules, there could be other questions regarding whether forgiveness of the debt also falls under congressional rules that bar members of the House of Representatives from accepting any gifts from lobbyists or entities that employ lobbyists, as well as gifts of $50 or more from anyone else.
In general, campaign contributions and debt are not covered under the gift rule. (Instead, restrictions on campaign contributions are handled by the Federal Election Commission and its state and local counterparts.)
"I don't think [the House Ethics Committee] would have anything to say about [campaign debt]," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said.
But if the Pennsylvania court concludes that Cozen O'Connor's forgiving of the debt does not constitute a campaign contribution but rather pro bono legal work, the equation changes.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said she couldn't "even contemplate what gift rule they would cite" to contend that half a million dollars worth of free legal work wasn't a gift. "The exceptions that exist, I just can't imagine which ones they would cite to say that this was acceptable," she said.
Neither Cozen O'Connor nor Brady's congressional office immediately responded to requests for comment.
(h/t Philadelphia journalist Laura Goldman)