Zurik: Meet the gatekeepers of state politics - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Lee Zurik Investigation: Meet the gatekeepers of state politics

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New Orleans, La. -

Along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner, Louisiana, there's a neighborhood of roughly 400 homes, the size of some Mardi Gras krewes.  You'd be forgiven for not noticing it on a map.

But imagine a community this small, with the power to pour tens of millions of dollars into politician's war chests.

"That's a lot of money to be giving," one resident remarks. "I would expect them to vote the way I'd like to see the votes being done."

We ask a neighbor what he would expect if his household contributed millions to political candidates. He says, "I'm sure I would be getting a speaking voice, so to speak... They would be listening to me. Influence."

We visited this Kenner community, speaking with its residents, to help illustrate just how few people in Louisiana influence taxpayer money, laws, politicians and elections.

For nearly four months, FOX 8 News and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune spent hundreds of research hours crunching campaign data - to come up with the top 400 donors to Louisiana elections over the past four years. This top 400 list is a record of people with the money to influence, and some of them have used that money to help reform government, bring stronger laws and transparency.

This small group actually represents a sliver - 0.3 percent - of all donors. But they give big bucks – more than 31 percent of all money donated to Louisiana's politicians.

And according to the National Institute of Money on State Politics, that's the problem with a small group giving large amounts of money.

"I think it's indicative of a less healthy democratic process, because too few players are having too large of a role," says Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the institute, which operates the watchdog website FollowTheMoney.org.

The top 400 is littered with interesting names, including Entergy, Exxon, Cox Communications, Mitch Landrieu and Newell Normand...

We also found interesting donations, and that brings us to number 160 on our top 400 list, Bryan Bossier from Alexandria. A large chunk of his donations came in one day - February 8, 2012 - in 19 different checks. Bossier, six of his family members, a business partner and 11 different companies he owns each contributed the maximum $5,000 to Governor Bobby Jindal. All totaled, in one day Bossier helped direct $95,000 to the governor.

Campaign Finance Limits/Table from La. Ethics Admin. Program

"The reason this is effective is because it's hidden," says former Governor Buddy Roemer, who instituted campaign finance reforms during his time in office. "They're using the rules to disguise the influence."

Before the donations, Jindal appointed Bossier to the La. Board of Commerce and Industry and the Highway Safety Commission. Months after, one of Bossier's companies, Diamond B Construction, secured nearly $50 million in state contracts.

"It tells me that they want something," says Roemer when asked what such large contributions suggest to him. "It tells me they want influence. It tells me to be suspicious."

Bossier never returned our call or email for comment.

LSU professor Bob Mann spent two decades in politics, working for the late long-time Senator Russell Long and former Governor Kathleen Blanco. He says, for some, the donations come down to buying access.

"It's a form of legalized bribery," says Mann "If I gave a thousand dollars to a member of Congress or to a city councilman, and he put that money into his checking, his personal checking account, that would be called bribery. I can give the same thousand dollars to a city councilman and he puts that same check into his campaign account, it's called politics. It's called good government. But the way that the politician uses money isn't all that different."

The big money contributions are by no means limited to one party or the other. The Democratic and Republican parties are two of the largest donors in the state - in this context, they are little more than fundraising franchises.

The Republican Party comes in at number 4, contributing $1,2 million from 2009 through 2012. The Democrats are at number 2, handing out $1.3 million. Parties have no contribution limits - they can write a check to a candidate for any amount of money.

So in 2011, the Republican Party donated $248,000 to Buddy Roemer's son, Chaz Roemer, for his race for the state's school board. The party gave Roemer nearly half the money he raised in that race, helping propel Roemer to a victory.

The Democratic Party poured almost $800,000 into Caroline Fayard's failed 2010 campaign for the lieutenant governor's office. Much of the donated money raises questions.

On October 13, 2010, Fayard's father and family gave the Democratic Party $210,000. A day later, the party purchased campaign ads for Caroline Fayard, totaling about $210,000. In two other instances, the Fayards donated money to the party and, days later, nearly the same amount of money was given to Fayard's campaign.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's donations to Louisiana elections earned him the 36th spot in our list. Bloomberg donated to education causes, and also gave to the mayors of New Orleans and Shreveport.

Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby also gave heavily to education causes. That helped vault him to number 3. Grigsby also provides an apparent case in point to the power of bundling.

Bundling is basically when one person uses different businesses, family members and friends to direct large amounts of money to one candidate. Grigsby, his family and employees made 10 separate donations in one year to East Baton Rouge Civil Court Judge William Morvant. All totaled, they gave $40,000. In another instance, 11 different donations netted state Representative Simone Champagne a $27,000 bundled contribution.

It shows campaign finance laws can be manipulated. One person, or one interest, can have an outsized impact on an election race.

"It may be within the letter of the law, but it certainly seems to evade, at least in part, the spirit of law," says Barber. "If you can collect from a lot of different corporations or donors, all connected to a similar entity, then it has a tendency to lessen the relevance of contribution limits."

The law allows individuals and corporations to give up to $5,000 to major races, such as governor or the mayor of New Orleans. The donation limit is lower, $2,500, for district offices such as state senators and representatives.

Several industries stuck out in our research, including oil and gas corporations, utilities, bankers, insurance firms and attorneys, all pouring thousands and millions of dollars into the election process. But some in the top 400 may surprise Baton Rouge outsiders.

Three different river pilot groups made the top 35.

Nursing homes gave huge sums. 10 different nursing homes made the top 400 - all totaled, that industry donated $2.1 million over the four-year period.

46 people in the top 400 self-financed much or all of their races. That was no guarantee of success though - 70 percent of them were defeated.

In St. Bernard Parish, for instance, Wayne Landry and Chad Clark both ran for sheriff.. Combined, they contributed $1.3 million of their own money to their races. Both lost.

Landry and Clark both made our top 400, part of a group essentially the size of our Kenner neighborhood. It's a group that controls a large part of politics in this state.

"I don't think it's a good thing," remarks our neighbor in Kenner. "The people that are giving these amounts you showed me, they're the ones that are kind of running the government, so to speak."

Experts say the oversized influence makes these key contributors, noble intentions or not, the gatekeepers of Louisiana politics.

Roemer tells us, "In the name of freedom, we've allowed those super, at the top… either wealthy individuals or, more sinisterly, wealthy causes, special interest groups, to buy the system."

Everyone mentioned in this report was approached for a comment.

The state's Democratic Party did get back to us about the Calvin Fayard donations, writing, "All of the Fayards' contributions to the Louisiana Democratic Party were within the legal limits, and the Democratic Party's in-kind contributions to Caroline Fayard were permissible and appropriate."

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