SAN JOSE — Rep. Mike Honda’s campaign this week released the list of donors to his legal defense fund in the ongoing ethics probe — two dozen individuals, businesses and a labor fund, totaling a fairly lackluster $37,000.
According to the report, $32,000 has been spent on legal fees in the second quarter of the year, ending June 30.
“That’s not going to go very far if you have an active ethics issue and are in the process of providing a lot of documents or actively engaged in defending yourself,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “That sounds like significant money, but in this world, it’s not.”
It’s much less than the $200,000 Honda, a Democrat running for his ninth term, spent in campaign funds last year in the months surrounding September, when the Office of Congressional Ethics released a report. That report, which resulted in the ongoing probe, said it appeared that taxpayer funds that were supposed to go toward office functions were improperly used for campaign activities — a violation of federal law.
Honda campaign spokesman Vedant Patel said the latest low numbers show that the legal issue is not as significant as challenger Ro Khanna, also a Democrat, makes it out to be.
“Highlighting the ethics inquiry is again a politically motivated move to hide Ro’s lack of record in public office and his right wing, Wall Street backers,” said Patel. “It’s a distraction from the real issues that middle class families are facing.”
Tom Rust, chief counsel for the ethics committee in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that he cannot comment on the state of the investigation or when it may end. Levinson said it’s hard to draw conclusions from the amount of money being spent on legal fees.
“If we look at it like a court case, there are certainly times when it’s not exactly dormant but a lot less active,” she said. “And it’s not fair to say that just because legal fees are low that there’s no activity, and if there is no activity that nothing is going on here.”
Honda and Khanna are in a rematch to represent District 17, with Honda looking particularly vulnerable after barely losing to Khanna in the primary. In 2014, the incumbent won the primary by 20 percentage points, which Khanna whittled to less than 4 by November.
In campaign fundraising, Honda outraised the Fremont attorney in the second quarter, between April 1 and June 30, with about $471,000 compared to Khanna’s $319,000. But Honda still has less total cash available — $951,000 — than Khanna, whose war chest now totals $1,450,000.
The legal expense fund was created earlier this year so those contributing to the campaign would know their money was going toward that purpose, Honda said at the time. Initial contributions were minimal, and observers had been watching to see what would be revealed in the second-quarter statement.
Some of the support came from donors who have given generously to the Honda campaign for a decade, and who also appear on the list of “1,000 Cranes” that is described in the Office of Congressional Ethics report that came out last September.
Identified “Cranes” — historical major donors to Honda campaigns — included San Jose doctor Gloria Wu; attorney Sukhan Kim, who works for one of the law firms helping Honda in the matter; and Ngai Nguyen, a cardiologist and leader in the local Vietnamese community. Wu gave $1,000 to the legal fund, while Kim and Nguyen each donated the maximum $5,000. Other maximum donors included the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC Voluntary Fund and Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge. Former Sunnyvale Mayor Anthony Spitaleri donated $1,000 through his Annca Inc. public relations firm.
While the auto dealership and former mayor are not on the “Cranes” list, IBEW does appear along with numerous unions. Khanna’s campaign said it was a conflict of interest for those on the list to contribute to the legal fund.
“Maybe Congressman Honda’s been in Washington so long that he doesn’t understand the irony of having your top donors fund your legal defense fund against charges that you unethically provided special favors to your top donors,” said campaign manager Hari Sevugan. “Or he just doesn’t care.”
Honda’s campaign said that they’re longtime supporters — of course they’re on the list, a notion Levinson agreed with to a point.
“Who did people think were going to contribute to his legal defense?” she said. “There’s a confined universe of people.”
However, Levinson said there could be self-interest at stake, too; nobody wants to be connected to someone who is ultimately found to have engaged in less-than-scrupulous pay-to-play practices, as was alleged.
“People don’t want to get dragged down into something like that, and are predisposed to support the legal defense,” she said. “If you have a dog in the fight, you want to make sure you fight the allegations as well as you possibly can.”
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.