Lee Zurik Investigation: Powerful pols caught over the limits? - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Lee Zurik Investigation: Powerful pols caught over the limits?

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New Orleans, La. -

Two of the most powerful people in state government have collectively been around politics for nearly five decades.

"These are two politically savvy individuals," says UNO political analyst Ed Chervenak. "If anyone knows the law, they do."

But despite their political experience, these two Baton Rouge power brokers may have violated the law, collecting tens of thousands of campaign dollars illegally.

"The fact they have violated the law kind of calls into question, you know, what's going on in their campaigns," Chervenak says.

Under Louisiana's campaign finance law, candidates face limits on the amount of money they can receive from a political action committee, or PAC. Statewide elected officials, such as the governor or secretary of state, can accept up to $80,000 from PAC's for each election. It's lower for a state senator or representative, $60,000.

"The idea is to democratize the process," says Chervenak, "to force candidates to go out there and raise large amounts of money from large amounts of people."

We've found nine officials who appear to have violated that law, giving some an unfair financial advantage in elections.

PAC bar graph

Click here to view this graphic in full.

In 2011, J.P. Morrell ran a heated race for state senator against Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Morrell won 53 percent of the vote. Remember, Morrell could only raise $60,000 from PAC's for that election. According to campaign finance reports, he raised at least $121,837.85 – that's $61,000, or 103 percent, over the legal limit.

"That's a significant amount of money for a state contest, no doubt about it," notes Chervenak. "Anytime you're talking five figures in a district race in Louisiana, that's a lot of money."

Morrell declined our request for an interview, but in a statement he called it a "clerical error." After we alerted him, Morrell said, "The campaign immediately appointed a new compliance officer... and has taken steps to implement a new multi-tiered oversight structure… the campaign will refund all of the contributions that exceeded limits."

Senator Danny Martiny of Kenner appears to have violated campaign finance laws in two straight elections. According to reports, Martiny topped the PAC limit in 2007 by $36,007.12. In 2011, we find, he received another $32,103.60 over the limit.

Records show Senator Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte went $31,490.14 over the limit in 2011. Baton Rouge Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb took in $26,550 more than permitted.

In a 2009 election, state records reveal Senator Elbert Guillory of Opelousas topped the PAC limit by $5,684.20. And in 2007, Louisiana Agricultural Commissioner Mike Strain raised $8,400 more from PAC's than the law allowed - Strain's CPA called it an "unintentional clerical error."

Former Senator Francis Heitmeier appears to be in violation of the law, too. In 2006, he ran for secretary of state, a statewide position with an $80,000 limit on PAC contributions. Reports show Heitmeier raised $115,112.67 from PAC's in that election - $35,112.67 over the legal limit. Heitmeier didn't return our emails; we tried to find him at his West Bank office, but the door was locked.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics wouldn't tell us if these politicians broke the law. But they did verify the process we used to come up with the results to this story.

We ask Kathleen Allen, the state's ethics administrator, whether anyone has been found in violation of the legal PAC contribution limits during her tenure. She says, "I can't think of an individual who we've referred to investigation and proceeded with enforcement action to on that particular issue."

Professor Chervenak says the ethics board needs to launch an investigation and look at this group of politicians, including the speaker of the house and president of the senate - two of the most powerful people in the state.

Records from the board show Senate President John Alario may have violated the aggregate PAC law for three different elections. Alario faces a limit of $60,000 per election. Records show Alario may have gone $19,856.06 over the limit in 2007, and almost $42,846.16 in 2011. The 2015 election is two years away, and Alario has already received $95,512.13 from PAC's – that puts him $35,512.14 over the limit. All totaled for three elections, it appears the senate president has taken almost $100,000 more from PAC's than the law allows.

State records show House Speaker Chuck Kleckley may have broken the PAC law twice. For the 2011 election, he appears to have gone $13,264 over the PAC limit. So far for 2015, he's collected $81,306.64 from PAC's - $21,206.64 over the legal limit.

Each form for reporting campaign finances includes a line where candidates must total contributions from PAC's - basically a summary of all PAC contributions. We found some filers failed to be accurate. Danny Martiny, for example, put a "0" - claiming no money from PAC's in this part of his report. But a deeper look at that same report shows tens of thousands of dollars of PAC contributions to Martiny.

John Alario filled out the summary section, but it doesn't appear to be accurate, either. If you dig deeper into report forms, you'll see a line under each donation that asks if the contribution is from a PAC (candidates should mark an "X" if it is). But not every PAC that donated was appropriately marked off - Alario failed to identify several PAC's, including Badge Star, the PAC belonging to former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle.

"It may be that these individuals don't think others will be looking at these reports," remarks Chervenak. "These are pretty arcane reports, they're pretty difficult to put together, I'm sure, as you found out. So not everyone's going to do the leg work that you're doing to find out what's actually going on in these reports."

While reviewing these campaign finance reports, we found that at least one elected official may be breaking even more campaign finance laws.

The law says state lawmakers can collect $2,500 per election from each PAC's, or $5,000 from a larger PAC such as Entergy. But we found five PAC's gave J.P. Morrell more than the legal limit. For example, Entergy's PAC, EnPAC Louisiana, contributed $6,500 to Alario.

The laws are intended to limit the size of politicians' campaign war chests. But our findings show some may be crossing over the legal line.

"I don't know what's worse, whether they're breaking the law or they're just ignorant," Chervenak tells us. "I think that they do know, these are professionals, they've run many campaigns, you know. They know what they're doing, they know what the law is. And so I would assume that it's just some way to kind of get around the system, to game the system, to get an advantage… to gain a financial advantage over your opponent."

Danny Martiny, Chuck Kleckley and Eric LaFleur all say they are reviewing our findings. None got back to us with a statement.

If the ethics board chooses to open an investigation, the penalty for knowing and willful violations is twice the amount of the violation or $10,000, whichever is greater.

Keep in mind, statute of limitations on campaign finance violations are either one or three years, depending on the nature of the violation. So the board may not be able to open an investigation into some of these officials - it's unclear if these cases would fall under one or three years.

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