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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Congress members fight notion they're living in the lap of luxury

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - Some Americans who call radio talk shows are expressing scornful doubt that Rep. Gary Condit, the California Democrat linked to missing Bureau of Prisons intern Chandra Levy, is facing serious financial problems because of legal bills.

But as the mystery of the missing intern continues to engross the nation's capital, House legislators hope the public finally understands that they are not as rich as many think and that unexpected legal bills jolt them as much as many American families.

Just being in the public eye when something goes wrong - whether or not a public official is at fault - often brings crushing legal bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the case of members of Congress, such bills must be paid by them, not by taxpayers. And while it's true that many rich people are elected to Congress, Congress no longer makes its members wealthy.

“I do worry about [the effect] of legal bills on members. But even worse is what happens when the staff gets hit with legal bills,” said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, of modest means himself compared with other senators. There are many members of the Clinton White House who did nothing wrong but who still have “huge'' legal bills to pay, he said.

A majority of the Senate's 100 members, at least, are wealthy, and while their campaigns are far more expensive than House campaigns, senators run for re-election only every six years.

House members must run every two years. Like senators, they are required to file regular financial disclosure reports giving an approximate range of their assets and income.

Such forms show that most members of the House would be in financial trouble if they suddenly were faced with Mr. Condit's financial burdens stemming from the investigation into the whereabouts of Ms. Levy.

Members of the House are paid $145,100 a year, up $3,800 from last year. That is about four times what the average American household makes. But out of that they pay taxes, maintain a residence in their home state, an apartment or house in the costly Washington area, and try to figure out how to pay for college for their children. While many senators are millionaires, most House members are not.

Beginning Oct. 1, the pay of a rank-and-file member of Congress will rise to about $150,000.

Former House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat from the state of Washington, said that his constituents thought that he lived in a big house with a butler, ate great meals off sterling silver and drove a Rolls Royce. The reality, said Mr. Foley, was that while he was in Congress, before being ambassador to Japan and earning 95 percent profits in initial public offerings, he barely got by.

Mr. Condit, 53, serving his 11th year in Congress, has a legal team led by Washington attorney Abbe Lowell, to whom Mr. Condit is believed to be paying $350 an hour to represent his interests as police try to find out what happened to Miss Levy. In addition, Mr. Condit has hired a pricey public relations firm.

Such bills pile up into the thousands of dollars extremely fast. When former President Clinton and his wife were under investigation, their legal fees were in the millions of dollars. Despite donations, they still owe between $2.3 million and $10.6 million, according to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial disclosure form.

Mr. Condit has not been accused of any crime and technically is not a suspect because the police have no evidence of a crime in the disappearance of the 24-year-old woman. But his legal and public relations bills are already in the thousands of dollars.

His Modesto, Calif., house is assessed at $124,000, extremely modest by California standards. His Washington condominium is worth $90,000, according to local real estate brokers. That too is modest by Washington standards. Unlike many members of Congress, Mr. Condit's wife does not work outside the home, and his only other asset is a revolving line of credit between $50,000 and $100,000, according to his financial disclosure form.

Other members of Congress who have gotten into situations where they hired private lawyers to represent them often used their campaign-finance funds if there is a connection between the job and their legal problems. But a number of legal experts said they doubt the Federal Election Commission will permit Mr. Condit to tap into the $250,000 he has accumulated in campaign contributions.

The No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, said he built up a liability of more than $500,000 because of a racketeering and campaign-finance suit filed against him by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a suit settled earlier this year. Mr. DeLay, 54, is taking gifts to help pay it off. Mr. DeLay's legal defense fund reportedly took in $37,400 though March. But radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh is hosting a fund-raiser this week with hopes of raising $250,000 to help pay Mr. DeLay's legal bills.

Rep. James A. Traficant, Jr., (D., Youngstown), seems to have no money with which to defend himself against pending federal racketeering and bribery charges. Mr. Traficant, 60, vowed to “fight like a junkyard dog in the face of a hurricane'' to avoid jail. A 10-count indictment alleges he took kickbacks from staff and money from people looking for favors.

Because he lists no assets and owes money to the IRS, he is representing himself although he is not a lawyer. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 63 years in prison and fined $2.2 million.

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D., N.J.) has raised more than $1 million to help defray legal costs for himself and his aides as federal investigators probe his fund-raising practices. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing, yet in one 18-month period he paid more than $200,000 to the same lawyer now advising Mr. Condit. Mr. Torricelli, 49, who has an apartment in Washington, this month put his house in Englewood, N.J., on the market for $949,000. He must have a residence there if he runs for re-election, as he says he'll do.

Mr. Condit has not said whether he will run for re-election next year. His last campaign cost $687,000, according to FEC records, and he won with 87 percent of the vote. He is under pressure to resign but has told colleagues he won't.



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