(Detroit Free Press)- Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's use of nearly $1 million in campaign funds to defend himself against criminal charges could lead to a change in how campaign finances may be spent in Michigan.
State Sen. Gilda Jacobs, a Huntington Woods Democrat, has asked Attorney General Mike Cox to issue an opinion on whether elected officials can use political donations to pay for legal expenses in a criminal case.
Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett was the first to seek clarity on the issue when she asked Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land earlier this year to rule whether Kilpatrick's expenditures were proper.
After studying the issue, Land said state law is unclear and told Garrett to have the ex-mayor seek a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service.
Instead, Garrett said on July 10 that Land's office did not provide clear guidance and declared in a news release that the "expenses are proper under the campaign finance law."
If the expenditures were deemed improper, Kilpatrick could have faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and taxes.
On Aug. 19, Jacobs turned to Cox.
"When I raised money for my committee it's to help me in my job and in my district," Jacobs said in an interview.
"There's lots of different ways that I could use it, but it would never occur to me that if I did something illegal, my donors would want me to use my money" to pay defense lawyers.
James Thomas, one of Kilpatrick's attorneys, said the ex-mayor's use of his campaign funds was proper.
Even if Cox disagrees, Thomas said he did not believe the attorney general's opinion would affect Kilpatrick because it comes after the money was spent.
"It might affect whatever goes on in the future," Thomas said, though he added that Cox's "ruling is going to be on an issue that's subject to review by the courts."
Cox spokesman Nick DeLeeuw said it was too early to say whether Cox's ruling would affect Kilpatrick.
Contact M.L. ELRICK: 313-222-6582
By M.L. ELRICK, Detroit Free Press Writer