DOVER, Del. — Former GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and her campaign committee violated federal campaign finance laws by using campaign contributions to pay her rent, a federal judge has ruled.
The judge’s ruling, dated Wednesday, came in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Election Commission.
The FEC claimed that O’Donnell improperly used at least $20,000 in campaign contributions to pay bills at a Delaware townhouse that also served as her 2010 campaign headquarters.
O’Donnell claimed that she rarely slept at the townhouse and never really lived there, despite subleasing space from the campaign.
While concluding that O’Donnell and her campaign committee were liable for unlawful use of campaign contributions, Judge Leonard Stark said he could not determine at this point how much the defendants will have to pay. He ordered attorneys to confer and submit a status report with their positions on how to proceed.
O’Donnell did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday. Stephen Hoersting, an attorney representing her, declined comment, noting that the case is still pending.
FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said the agency does not comment on litigation.
O’Donnell, who famously declared in the 2010 campaign that she was “not a witch,” has previously denied any wrongdoing and called the lawsuit a “witch hunt.”
In a deposition, O’Donnell said she pretended to live at the townhouse because it was in a secure complex and she had received previous threats and feared for her safety.
“I wasn’t like hanging out there having dinner parties, Netflix and chill, all that kind of stuff,” she testified “If I was there, I was there working on the campaign.”
Stark said it was undisputed that O’Donnell slept at the townhouse, kept personal items in the master bedroom, and intended to use it as a residence.
According to court records, the committee paid $1,410 a month rent for the townhouse, while O’Donnell made five quarterly rent payments of $770, or about $257 a month, starting several weeks after she started living there.
“The difference between the amount the committee paid for the townhouse and the amount O’Donnell paid the committee constitutes an unlawful conversion of campaign funds to personal use,” Stark wrote. A conservative estimate suggests that O’Donnell paid $213 less per month than what she should have paid for her share of the rent, he added.
The judge also noted that utility costs during O’Donnell’s 15-month sublease amounted to $4,264, but that O’Donnell “effectively paid nothing for the utilities.”
“Thus, again, defendants converted campaign contributions to a prohibited personal use,” he wrote.
Stark rejected O’Donnell’s arguments that the campaign finance law violates the First Amendment because it limits the way individuals can spend campaign funds. The judge said a payment for her living space was a payment for a personal expense, not a payment to facilitate political expression.
Stark also rejected arguments that O’Donnell’s payments to the committee should be characterized as “security expenses” rather than rent payments.
The FEC sought an order for the defendants to pay a $25,000 civil penalty and O’Donnell to disgorge $5,000.
But Stark suggested the appropriate remedy will depend on whether he concludes that O’Donnell acted in good faith in relying on purported guidance she received from an FEC analyst, or, conversely, may have acted in bad faith by misrepresenting facts to the court.
O’Donnell testified that she spoke with an FEC official before signing the lease about the proposed dual use of the townhouse, and that it didn’t appear to be a problem. But she acknowledged that she had no documentation to confirm the phone calls or the guidance she supposedly received.
The FEC maintains that no such conversations ever took place, noting that they are not reflected in any call logs, and that the analyst has no recollection of any calls like those described by O’Donnell.