Politicians can pay a heavy price when they’re accused of sexual misconduct — even when the case is dismissed. Just ask California Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas.
He racked up almost $150,000 in legal expenses defending himself against a lawsuit that alleged he sexually assaulted a minor. In July, the alleged victim agreed to have the case dismissed with prejudice, meaning that she can’t file it again. But that doesn’t wipe out those expenses, even when the case is dropped.
Cárdenas has spent $148,291 from a legal expense fund established to help him fight the civil lawsuit brought by Angela Villela Chavez. Many of Cárdenas’ supporters, including several donors, came to his aid after the lawsuit was filed in 2018, contributing $170,050 to the Tony Cárdenas Legal Expense Trust, according to a filing received by the Legislative Resource Center on July 30. Of that total, he has $21,759 left.
Cárdenas has denied the allegations from the outset.
While the suit against Cárdenas was ultimately dismissed, there have been waves of credible accusations against lawmakers regarding sexual misconduct or harassment. Many such instances in Congress were brought to light in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and what followed were the resignations of members of Congress, including Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.; and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“The Congressman agreed that he would not sue her for malicious prosecution,” said Joel Klevens, one of Cárdenas’ lawyers, about the resolution of the lawsuit. “She did not get 5 cents. It wasn’t a settlement, it was a dismissal.”
Glaser Weil, a Los Angeles-based law firm, was paid $85,000 from the legal fund. Klevens, a partner at the firm, said the firm is still owed money, and that an expert psychiatrist the firm hired to conduct a mental examination of Chavez in relation to her emotional distress claims is also owed money.
Perkins Coie, a law firm that has a specialty practice in political law, received over $19,000 for legal services.
Other expenses included accounting services, credit card processing fees and “supplies.”
Cárdenas did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Chavez accused Cárdenas of molesting her when she was 16, the Los Angeles Times reported. After the lawsuit was dismissed, Cárdenas said “the truth prevailed” and thanked his family, community and constituents, according to the newspaper.
Months prior to the dismissal of the lawsuit, Lisa Bloom’s law firm stopped representing Chavez, citing that the firm was required to withdraw from the case under the California bar’s professional conduct rules, according to the Times. The newspaper also reported that Patricia Glaser, another attorney for Cárdenas from Glaser Weil, described Chavez as the daughter of a disgruntled former employee.
Chavez told the Times after she agreed to have her lawsuit dismissed that she never would have come forward with her allegations without the “confidence and backing” of her attorney. “I regret my decision in choosing her as my attorney,” she told the Times.
The House Ethics Committee permits members to establish a legal expense fund when legal fees are incurred in connection with one’s candidacy or election to federal office, the member’s official duties in office, a criminal prosecution or a civil matter regarding the person’s reputation or fitness for office.
Steven Jay Bernheim, a Democratic donor who has given Cárdenas’ campaigns thousands of dollars, donated $5,000 to Cárdenas’ legal expense fund, which is the annual maximum allowed. The California lawyer said he has known Cárdenas since he was a member of the Los Angeles City Council.
“Between knowing Tony well personally and having looked into the allegations myself, I believe that Tony is innocent,” Bernheim said.
Imaad Zuberi, a powerful political donor to both parties who gave $5,000 to help Cárdenas with his legal bills, is involved in two federal investigations.
Zuberi’s interactions with President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, his political donations and work with foreign governments are under scrutiny, the Wall Street Journal reported. Zuberi has donated thousands of dollars to Cárdenas’ campaigns over the years.
Bernheim said he was pleased that the lawsuit was dropped so that Cárdenas can get back to work without distraction.
“I myself have personal experience with a false civil accusation of sexual harassment, and I know the toll both emotionally and financially that even a false accusation takes,” Bernheim said. “I know Tony is a full-time legislator and does not have the resources for legal fees.”
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