Monserrate "Secret" Defense Fund Sparks Ethics Outrage

Watchdogs zero in on how state senator plans to pay for legal defense

By Jennifer Millman
|  Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009  |  Updated 1:15 PM EDT
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Monserrate "Secret" Defense Fund Sparks Ethics Outrage

AP

What next, Hiram?

First Hiram Monserrate was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Now he's being accused of skirting ethics laws, and watchdogs say there's nothing they can do about it because it's all being kept "secret."

The state senator was acquitted Oct. 15 of two counts of felony assault and convicted only on a misdemeanor charge, for which he will likely serve little or no time behind bars when he is sentenced on Dec. 4.

Now Monserrate's lawyers are busy crafting arguments to prevent him from getting thrown out of the state senate – and the Queens politician has got to find a way to pay for it all.

Between the highly publicized domestic-violence trial and ongoing legal issues, Monserrate's court costs could grow to about $1 million, according to published reports. He's not allowed to pay off his lawyers using money from his campaign war chest because he was arrested before he assumed office and his detention was unrelated to his public responsibilities, reports the Daily News.

So Monserrate has apparently turned to a shadier method – a route watchdogs consider a loophole in state ethics regulations that allows his supporters to create a legal defense fund to bail him out, reports the Albany Times Union.

That special defense fund doesn't fall under the same limits as campaign funds, and individuals can donate as much as they want. Donors who shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for Monserrate's defense remain anonymous, even to the state senator, so the public can't find out who's footing the bill or why.

Perhaps the deep-pocketed donors would pay to keep Monserrate afloat out of the goodness of their hearts. Or, more likely, maybe they want something in return, in which case the public finds itself lost in a quid pro quo between a convicted politician and unidentified benefactors, unable to determine what's at stake.

How does this "special defense fund" work? The Legislative Ethics Commission can vote to allow a legislator  to create one to funnel money to his or her legal defense. The recipient isn't allowed to manage the money or know where it came from, however, and the funds can only be used for legal bills, reports the Times Union.

As far as political watchdogs are concerned, however, someone's giving Monserrate a free ride and they can't find out who's behind the wheel.

"It's unbelievable," Blair Horner, a New York Public Interest Research Group activist, told the News. "Even by Albany standards - and I'm pretty jaded - this is a whopper."

While the ethics commission can't comment on whether it OK'd the creation of a fund on Monserrate's behalf, the legislator's lead defense attorney hints it's for real. 

"There are no campaign funds. He's got some supporters, I think, who are high-net-worth individuals, helping," Tacopina told the Times Union. "He's being very, very careful."

Indeed he should be. Monserrate's been treading on icy waters. Politicians at state, local and national levels have unleashed a bipartisan call for his resignation or removal from the State Senate in the aftermath of his conviction. A nine-member committee of senators from both sides of the aisle has been established to consider whether disciplinary action should be taken against Monserrate.

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