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Sens. Ayotte, Menendez continue raising money for their defense funds

by
Sens. Kelly Ayotte , R-N.H., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

While candidates and their supporters wooed donors to bankroll their campaign committees in this year’s elections, two senators continued to maintain legal defense funds that attracted thousands of dollars from deep-pocketed supporters and their parties' leadership.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., both filed third quarter reports with the Ethics Committee listing donations to funds set up to provide financial support from lawsuits against political opponents. Ayotte has raised $147,000, and Menendez $120,000 since setting up the legal defense fund. 

Documents obtained from the Senate Public Records office show that donations have come in sums of $1,000, $5,000 and even $10,000 from contributors who have supported them in past elections.

With the approval of the Senate ethics committee, lawmakers can set up a legal fund and appoint a trustee, not employed by the Senate, to manage the account. Any expenditures and in-kind donations over $25 have to be reported in quarterly filings. The limit is $10,000 per donor for each fiscal year. Individuals, corporations’ political action committees, and other Senate members can donate to these accounts. The senator's principal campaign committee can also transfer money to these legal coffers. 

The filings provide a closer look at who's supporting them:

Sen. Kelly Ayotte

New Hampshire's junior senator created a legal defense fund in response to a lawsuit that Christopher King, a blogger who describes himself as an investigative journalist, filed during the 2010 campaign that won Ayotte her seat. King accused the then-Senate candidate of banning him from attending public campaign events.

Managed by trustee Cleta Mitchell of Foley and Lardner, Ayotte's defense fund has received $147,000 in contributions and spent nearly $140,000 in legal costs billed by Mitchell's law firm, as well as McClane Graf Raulerson and Middleton. Representing himeslf, King says he has spent around $2,000 in legal fees, which doesn't include the opportunity costs he has expended to prepare for this case.

More than half of Ayotte's backers are political action committees of corporations, conservative organizations and leadership in the conservative faction of the Senate. Among them are Sen. Richard Shelby, Ala., and Sen. John Cornyn, Texas, whose leadership PACs each gave $10,000. Idaho's Sen. Mike Crapo and South Dakota's Sen. John Thune also came to her rescue, each doling out $5,000.

Ayotte, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also received donations from Honeywell International, a heavyweight defense contractor that lobbies on defense and appropriations-related issues. In addition to donating $13,000 to her Senate campaign, Honeywell, a manufacturer of aerospace and military products, has given a total of $10,000 to her defense fund -- $5,000 not too long after it was created in June 2011 and a second $5,000 donation last May.

Other companies' PACs, such as those belonging to Microsoft and KMPG, have also been supporters. Microsoft, which has given at least $5,000 to her campaign, also recently contributed $5,000. KMPG backed her race with $10,000 and added another $5,000 to her defense fund last summer.

Other campaign donors who have donated at least $5,000 to Ayotte's defense fund include: Gregory W. Wendt of San Francisco who also has bundled for Sen. John McCain, Ariz.; Connecticut residents Robert and Susan Bishop of Impala Asset Management; and Theodore Cutler of The Interface Group and a former business partner of Sheldon Adelson.

King has waged a war in his blog against Ayotte since her days as New Hampshire's attorney general. In his lawsuit, the blogger has criticized her management of a case that involved a shooting of a police officer in 2007. He has also accused her of discrimination. A judge has dismissed all charges, but King continues to appeal. Ayotte's spokesperson, Jeff Graponne, in an e-mail, maintains that the accusations are "frivolous."

Sen. Robert Menendez

Menendez filed papers with the Secretary of the Senate last year establishing a legal defense fund to cover costs arising from the Committee to Recall Robert Menendez v. Wells. These legal troubles started when tea party members attempted to remove the Democratic senator from office after the 2010 elections for opposing their views on several issues such as health care, limiting government and immigration, pushing for a recall.

New Jersey's then-Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells, also a Democrat, rejected the group's petition drive, which prompted the tea party to also name her, Menendez and director of the state's division of elections Robert F. Giles in the lawsuit. The New Jersey Supreme Court later struck down the tea party's efforts.

As of last quarter, the fund has spent almost $110,000 in legal fees. Major donors include the New Millenium PAC, Menendez's leadership fund which gave $10,000.

Two out-of-state couples have also given to Menendez's campaign and his defense fund. Eye-specialists Flor and Salomon Melgen of North Palm Beach, Fla. each gave $10,000 in the second quarter. Olga and George Tsunis of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.  also individually wrote a check for $10,000 to help the senator's legal troubles.

A former member of the House, Menendez entered the Senate in 2006 as an appointee. New Jersey's then-newly elected Gov. Jon Corzine, a fellow Democrat, tapped him to fill the Senate seat Corzine was vacating. That fall, Menendez won a special election to fill out the remaining four years of Corzine's term. He was re-elected to his first full Senate term in 2010. Menendez's office has not returned Sunlight's calls or email.

Ayotte Legal Defense Fund June 2011 - Oct. 2012Menendez Legal Defense Funds June 2011 - Oct 2012