State Sen. Jane Orie, who will be sentenced next month on 14 criminal counts, paid more than $100,000 in legal fees in 2011 out of her campaign coffers.
According to her campaign finance report for that year filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State, Ms. Orie, R-McCandless, paid her defense attorney, William Costopoulos, a total of $105,500 out of funds that were contributed to her campaign.
She paid another $6,872 in reimbursement to her brother, John R. Orie Jr., for a copy of the transcript from her 2011 trial that ended in a mistrial when prosecutors accused her of submitting fraudulent documents in the case.
Ms. Orie was found guilty of 14 of 24 counts against her at a retrial of the charges in March. She will be sentenced May 21 by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.
Most experts agree that under Pennsylvania's lax campaign finance laws, using funds to pay for legal expenses -- especially when they are borne out of a candidate's office -- is legally permissible. It has been done before by others in similar situations.
Some, though, raise questions about the ethics of the issue.
Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, called it "a gray area."
"If it does somehow survive a legal test, it clearly doesn't survive an ethical test," he said.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, agreed.
"If you look at the definition, in the end, the purpose of it is to influence an election," he said. "I don't know how you make that work."
Ms. Orie last ran for her 40th senatorial district seat in 2010.
According to her 2011 campaign finance report, she had $392,129 available in her fund and spent $169,230.
The 23-page filing shows Ms. Orie spent money on stamps and to reimburse her legislative staffers for expenses. She paid for political meals, office supplies and phone bills. But the two $50,000 payments to Mr. Costopoulos, on April 18 and Sept. 21, were the largest on the list.
He said Monday neither he nor Ms. Orie had any comment.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said his office is not allowed to offer an advisory opinion on what is or is not permissible spending under the law. He did say, though, that if a complaint is filed, the office will investigate and can refer the matter to the state attorney general's office if it believes a crime has occurred.
"We've got one of the most loosely constructed campaign finance laws in the western world," Mr. Madonna said. "It's not without precedent."
In recent years, according to media reports, former state Sen. Robert Mellow of Lackawanna County spent $738,000 of his campaign funds and former Philadelphia state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo spent $1.1 million of his campaign funds, to pay legal fees.
In other local cases of interest, it appears from a search of the online records that neither former state Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, nor former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, paid their legal fees out of campaign funds.
"In our view, monies donated to campaign committees are donated to help candidates win office," said Common Cause director Barry Kauffman. "They're not supposed to be a laundering operation to enhance a candidate's lifestyle."
But others believe that because of Ms. Orie's popularity among her constituents that her use of their donations for legal expenses would not be viewed with distaste.
"The fact is, a lot of the Ories' support is personal," said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University. "People like the family, and many people in Pennsylvania feel the charges were part of a political vendetta."
Allegheny County Republican Party Chairman Jim Roddey believes most people donating to Ms. Orie in 2010 or 2011 knew about the pending criminal case against her.
"I think most of the people who contributed to her would not have any problem with that," he said. "She'd already been accused. People were still giving her money because they wanted her to be elected, and they wanted to see her exonerated."
Ms. Orie was charged with using her legislative staff to campaign for both herself and a sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
The senator was convicted of theft of services, ethics acts violations and tampering with evidence and forgery. She was found not guilty on the counts related to her sister's campaign.
Mr. Madonna, who says Ms. Orie did nothing illegal, believes the law needs to be addressed.
"There isn't any doubt that's a loophole in the current campaign finance law that needs to be closed," he said.