Lee Zurik Investigation: Former politicians living large on campaign war chests

Kathleen Blanco (File/AP Photo)
Kathleen Blanco (File/AP Photo)

Kathleen Blanco has been out of office four and a half years.  But you wouldn't know it by looking at her campaign finance reports.

By our calculations, she spent more campaign money last year than any other person in the state not seeking office.  Blanco emptied $235,839.51 out of her campaign war chest.

Her campaign wrote monthly checks to AT&T for phones, spent $3500 a month with a communications consultant and $1,000 monthly with a clerical person.  She paid monthly for an office in Lafayette.  Donors paid for meetings at restaurants like Clancy's and Don's Seafood, a number of hotel rooms and nearly $1400 a month with a Washington-based company, Sector 180 LLC -- according to their website, an online reputation firm.

Blanco has not run for office since 2004, and the 69-year-old former governor has made no sign that she is serious about getting back into politics.  But she keeps spending about $200,000 a year -- every year -- out of her campaign war chest.  And she has nearly $2 million more to spend, even though she has not received any campaign contributions since 2008.

"Is it wrong?  Yes.  Is it illegal?  Not necessarily," says government watchdog C.B. Forgotston.

Forgotston says the campaign finance law is vague.  The law says surplus funds may be returned to contributors, donated to a charity, given to another candidate or maintained for future elections.

A Blanco spokesperson told us Blanco still enjoys an active public life and is free to make expenditures from her former campaign account on matters related to her role as a former governor.

Now remember -- the law only allows former elected officials to spend their money four ways, and it does not say you can spend it related to your role as a former officeholder.  So Blanco may be in violation of the law.

The fact is, according to the law, if Blanco would have said she may run for state or local office again, she would likely be able to keep spending.   And so could her predecessor, Mike Foster.

Foster left the Governor's Mansion in 2004 and stopped raising money, but kept spending it.  He spent the last of his campaign war chest in November of 2008 for his post-political career, paying for phone and Internet service, dues to the Camelot Club and City Club in Baton Rouge, meals and flowers for constituents.

"The guy's only worth about $300 million… you would think he wouldn't he'd have to abuse the system," says Forgotston.

By the way, Foster is now 81 years old and at this point, he's out of campaign money.  But he is a registered lobbyist, lobbying for four companies.

We called Foster's listed lobbyist number.  We were told to call right back, but we never got an answer on our three returned calls.

But there's more.

It's one thing to be a former governor.  But what about a disgraced politician who resigned from office and pleaded guilty to federal charge?

On Oct. 5, 2011, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle resigned from office, and the federal government laid out his charges in a bill of information that included improperly spending campaign money.  On Oct. 8, three days after he was charged, Hingle bought a $175 wedding present from Adler's, out of his campaign account.

On Oct. 14, Hingle made an appearance in federal court.   That day, he bought another wedding present from Adler's and a $200 dinner at Mr. John's Steakhouse.

And two days before pleading guilty in federal court, Hingle spent nearly $2600 of campaign money for lunch and dinner in St. Louis.  Again, the only way that would be legal under state law is if Hingle could claim he was spending money in St. Louis on a future election.

In December of last year – again, after pleading guilty -- Hingle spent $1200 at 1179 Restaurant and $1100 at Morton's.

"Campaign money should be spent to elect a person to office," Forgotston insists.

But for some, that may not be happening.

Since Eddie Sapir left the New Orleans City Council in 2006, he's been spending campaign money.  Sapir has thousands of dollars charged on a Visa card -- no explanation given.

Sapir's campaign contributors have bought meals at restaurants like Cochon and Crescent City Steakhouse -- in 2007, he charged 11 separate meals to his campaign at 1179.   In 2011, he bought cupcakes he labeled as "food" for his office – again, he was not in political office then -- gas, cell phone bills, candies, an Amazon Prime membership, dues at Audubon Golf Club, and even a number of Fair Grounds memberships worth over $1,000 each.

Now, for a time in 2010, Sapir did publicly consider a run for mayor.  In a statement, Sapir wrote, "Louisiana law does not require a person to be holding office to expend surplus campaign funds.  All such funds in my campaign account, when expended, are done so in compliance with the Louisiana ethics laws."

Francis Heitmeier term-limited out of the State Senate in 2008.  But each year since, he has spent between $25,000 and $40,000 out of his campaign war chest.  Heitmeier did not return our call for a comment.

Heitmeier has plenty of American Express bills.  He itemizes the expenses: meals at Dragos, Cochon, Cafe Adelaide, shopping at Dorignacs, flowers, gifts at Dillards, a vehicle lease, $4500 for a Saints suite and LSU tickets.

Heitmeier registered as a lobbyist in Baton Rouge in 2010.  That same year, he kept spending out of his campaign war chest.

And when his niece needed a graduation gift in May 2010, Heitmeier gave her one -- it cost $100.  He paid for it out of his campaign war chest, calling it a graduation gift for a constituent.  Instead, it was a gift for the daughter of Heitmeier's brother David, who replaced him as state senator.

We tried to ask the State Ethics Administration whether the expenses we're reporting here are valid legal expenditures under current campaign law.  But they declined our request for an on-camera interview.

And until the Ethics Administration and state lawmakers do more to clarify and tighten the law, the questionable spending will continue.

"Until, you know, people say, 'wait a minute, Kathleen, you're really not planning to run for governor again... Francis Heitmeier, you're not planning on running again....'  Until someone just says that and looks them in the eye and tells them, 'That's not what it's for,' it's not going to happen," warns Forgotston.