Lee Zurik Investigation: Will House bill address campaign finance excesses?

House & Govt. Affairs Chairman Tim Burns
House & Govt. Affairs Chairman Tim Burns

Two New Orleans-area lawmakers have filed a bill that addresses several of the stories from our "Louisiana Purchased" series, the joint investigation between FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

The bill would force elected officials to make more detailed explanations on their campaign finance filings that show where they've spent their campaign money.

"What the bill requires is a more clear explanation of the purpose of the political-related or campaign-related expenditure," says Rep. Tim Burns of Mandeville, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The bill by Burns and Rep. Gregory Miller of Norco adds this one line to the existing law: "…the amount of each expenditure, a detailed explanation of the purpose of each expenditure containing sufficient information to relate the expenditure to an acceptable use."

In other words, if this bill is passed, elected officials would have to detail how the expenditure relates to their campaign or office, and detail that on amended campaign finance forms.

Burns says, "The ones that are online now, the digital forms, there isn't that much space that allows for explanation. That we're going to have more, obviously, more space in the forms for the explanation, perhaps directions saying what is the specific campaign or political purpose, is what I gather."

Our series of stories have shown elected officials spending campaign cash on tickets, meals, flowers and gifts, and nowhere noting how those purchases relate to their campaigns or public offices.

We even found that La .Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb of Baton Rouge reimbursed herself almost $16,000 and only noted on her campaign finance form it was a "reimbursement," with no detail explaining why she was paying herself that money.

The reform should force politicians to report with "just enough detail and clarity so the average person, you know, understands what they're doing, understands why they're doing a certain expenditure," says Burns.

Right now, a politician can write a single word on the campaign finance form - "constituent" - and it basically legitimizes it as a legal expense.

"The law is pretty clear with it," Burns contends. "If it's directly related to political purpose, seeking office or holding office, and it's related to that, then that's [when] I would consider something a campaign expenditure."

What's unclear is how much change a law like this will bring, for example, on purchases of tickets to sporting and other events. We found that, in a four-year period, Senate President John Alario spent $253,000 on tickets, mostly to sporting events.

"There's been a lot of, obviously, focus on tickets," Burns acknowledges. "And again, that's why it's important to describe it. If it is purely campaign, if you're there – I'm just giving an example – if you take a supporter with you, somebody that's very prominent in your race, and you make… you [go] around to the tailgate parties and you see people, and you're spending a lot of your time politicking, for lack of a better term. If that's the purpose there, then I think that's an appropriate use of it - if you're purely politicking, if you're working it as opposed to enjoying it. Not saying you can't enjoy it, but if you're working the event - so to speak that politicians will work an event, not necessarily attend an event - if you're working it, it's political.

If passed, Burns says, this bill will clean up the law and cut down on some of instances we've highlighted in our series.

Political analyst Ed Chervenak says, "At a minimum, they are starting to address the issue, acknowledging that there are some questionable expenses."

The key, Chervenak says, will be what is considered to be "sufficient information" to justify expenses. That will likely get worked out in House and Senate committees as the bill moves forward.

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