U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is in hot water over accusations that he used campaign funds to pay for his defense against a lawsuit.
The lawsuit against Warnock and other Georgia public officials was initially filed in 2019. A judge struck down the complaint without serving the defendants then, but the plaintiff refiled the suit in 2021, resulting in it being dismissed again.
Republicans filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Georgia’s only Black U.S. senator on Wednesday, accusing him of violating federal campaign finances laws. The allegations come as Warnock faces a competitive reelection bid against Republican contender Herschel Walker, a former football star who Democrats have also accused of campaign finance misconduct.
National Republican Senatorial Committee argued in the FEC complaint that Warnock used campaign funds for “personal gain” by covering legal expenses for the lawsuit that makes claims against Warnock in his role as Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor. However, Warnock’s campaign argues that the lawsuit was filed while he was a senator and he was served at his senate office in Atlanta.
“This was never a personal lawsuit. It was a frivolous lawsuit filed against multiple public figures and handled according to the law,” Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks said.
In the federal lawsuit, Atlanta resident Melvin Robertson claims that Warnock and state and local officials, including former Atlanta Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms and Kasim Reed, conspired to entrap him. He alleged that Warnock used his relationship with the homeless to conspire against him back in 2005 and 2008.
Robertson alleges that he was not allowed to work because of the scheme and lost all of his belongings in a storage locker in Athens, Georgia. The suit also names the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Court records show Robertson has also filed another lawsuit against Atlanta, a McDonald’s restaurant in the city, an unnamed police officer, a Publix assistant store manager, and a homeless man listed as “Wilbur The Homeless Man.”
FEC guidelines state that campaign money can 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.”
Political law attorney Charlie Spies, a Republican, told Politico the FEC must determine whether Warnock would have incurred the expense as a private citizen.
“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,” Spies said.
Warnock hired his campaign attorneys from Elias Law Group to represent him in the case alongside Atlanta firm, Krevolin & Horst. Reports show Warnock’s campaign has paid Elias Law Group $66,000 since October and paid Krevolin & Horst $1,183.
Marc Elias of the Elias Law Group said the lawsuit “was served at his official office and is based on laws that only apply to him because of his status as a sitting office holder.”
“It’s completely legal and appropriate to have used campaign funds on this legal matter, as many federal officeholders have done before. Any suggestion otherwise is completely false,” he said.
Warnock’s team also argues the constitutional violations Robertson accused him of are only applicable to Warnock in his position as a senator. However, Republicans contend that the allegations against Warnock are from years before he even ran for office.
“Because the conduct that gave rise to the lawsuit occurred long before Warnock was a candidate for federal office, the conduct had nothing to do with Warnock’s now-status as a candidate and officeholder,” the FEC complaint said.
Spies said that if the FEC finds thats the spending decision was not willful then Warnock would be required to pay the amount that was illegally spent to close the case.
Warnock’s Republican opponent Walker has also been accused of violating campaign finance laws.
Democrats have filed FEC complaints alleging that Walker used campaign money to pay for his Senate campaign announcement. They also accused Walker of receiving $3,000 in “excessive and unreported in-kind contributions” after U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted Facebook ads advertising his campaign.