Zurik: La. politicians living large on campaign funds; will IRS - FOX 8, WVUE, fox8live.com, weather, app, news, saints

Zurik: La. politicians living large on campaign funds; will IRS move in?

A longtime political analyst says it's time for the federal government - the IRS - to put an end to a practice that's gone unchecked for decades. It's a practice we see in full swing as we review 2013 campaign expenditures by state and local politicians in Louisiana. Here's the latest in our “Louisiana Purchased” probe of campaign finance, reported by FOX 8 News and Manuel Torres of NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

“It's everywhere. I mean, the word is out,” warns Elliot Stonecipher, a seasoned political pollster and public policy observer based in Shreveport. “This is a massive, massive practice of real expense.”

If that's true, the word “constituent” has allowed two Jefferson Parish politicians to eat out a third of last year, without spending a penny out of their own bank account.

For Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, food expenses totaled $19,150.45 in 2013. Connick ate out on his campaign account 126 times.

On Saturday, March 2, he spent $999.08 for a meal at Le Foret. In fact, 25 percent of Connick's campaign spending on meals came on weekends, including a Sunday in August 2013 when he reported spending $640.49 on campaign workers and supporters at La Provence restaurant on the North Shore. 21 percent of his spending on food came on Fridays, including a Friday last October at Clancy's restaurant in uptown New Orleans. The JP district attorney charged his campaign $771.94 for that meal.

On Memorial Day last year, Connick's campaign records show he enjoyed Vietnamese food - twice. That day he reported spending $63.96 on workers and supporters at Pho Bistreaux in New Orleans. Then he spent another $63.53 that same day, Memorial Day, at Pho Tau Bay in Gretna.

Speaking on Connick's behalf, political consultant Ron Nabonne told NOLA.com that Connick uses his campaign account to pay for his meal every time a constituent, contributor or even public officials invite him out, so “no one gets the impression that they can expect anything in return.” Nabonne said no meals were bought for Connick's relatives or for non-campaign or official purpose. And although 2013 was a non-election year for Connick, Nabonne said the DA was shoring up support and raising money for 2014, which explains the frequency of meals. Connick was reelected without opposition this fall.

Regarding the March meal at Le Foret and the October meal at Clancy's, Nabonne said those were meals with donors to raise campaign contributions. He didn't say which donors.

Jefferson Parish Councilman Ben Zahn didn't have meals as pricey as Connick, but he did eat out more on his campaign supporters' dime, 159 times - nearly half of last year. Zahn's meals ranged from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood to Copeland's, PF Chang's to Puccino's, Starbucks to La Madeline. In one month, April, Zahn ate out on campaign supporters 23 different times; in May, it was 22 times.

Zahn says the vast majority of the spending on food came with constituents or people directly related to the campaign.

“It's turned into… sort of their own private slush funds that they can use for whatever they want,” says Bob Mann, an LSU professor who spent decades in politics, working for late Senator Russell Long and former Governor Kathleen Blanco. “It supports their lifestyle. It doesn't really support their candidacy for any office.”

Mann says the dining on campaign funds has gotten out of control. “Politicians never take their rank-and-file constituents to Ruth's Chris, you know,” Mann says. “If they're going to feed them, it's a big jambalaya dinner, with Coke and a beer keg.”

All totaled, Louisiana politicians' food and meal purchases in 2013 totaled $1,065,706.

“Once the money is in the account, it's being spent for improper expenses,” Mann says. “It's being used to support the lifestyle of the candidate, not the political activities of the candidate.”

And yes, the questionable spending last year went well beyond food. But the fact is, because, the language of Louisiana's campaign finance and ethics laws are so vague that much of what you're about to hear is probably not against the law.

“The word is out,” Stonecipher says. “Everybody now knows how to do it. “

Jefferson Parish Judge Roy Cascio bought 14 different gifts at Dillard's. His campaign bought birthday, shower and graduation gifts.

Is that illegal? Probably not, under the state's current ethics regime. When we asked Judge Cascio for comment, he simply wrote us, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to comment but at this time in have no comment.”

Earlier this year we detailed how some politicians like to buy LSU tickets with their campaign funds - and many did so again in 2013. Baton Rouge Councilman Ryan Heck put a twist on that practice when he had a “constituent meeting” in Tiger Stadium - at the concession stand - and charged his campaign $8 for it. Councilman Heck told us he believes he bought a few Cokes and hot dogs for some of the people sitting around him.

St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor charged his campaign $35 for Dandy Don LSU Sports Services - that's a popular website that LSU fans use to get Tiger news.

Those expenses don't amount to much, but Stonecipher warns that Tiger football should be a red flag in campaign finance reports. “The one that is so huge now, that is new, is anything relative to LSU football,” he says. “And I'm telling you, if anybody has any need to figure out who they need to look more closely at, that is the new trigger.”

As Stonecipher reviewed our findings, at times all he could do was shake his head.

“It is a separate source of income,” he tells us. “It's lucrative for some of these folks. And there is no downside risk.”

That's because, according to Stonecipher and many other observers, state law is very vague on what campaign funds may be used for. But Stonecipher adds that the State Ethics Board is toothless - if a politician does cross the legal line, it's unlikely that a local district attorney would prosecute a fellow elected official.

“Why isn't the IRS on top of this?” he wonders. “That's where people like me and politicians who are straight up are constantly scratching their heads.”

In some cases, Stonecipher says, politicians could be sidestepping the Internal Revenue Service by spending personal money out of their campaign account. “The issue, if none other, is the money these legislators get and use this way is not taxed,” Stonecipher says.

In the summer of 2012, Harry Morel retired as St. Charles Parish's district attorney. Right now, he collects a state pension of $146,000 a year. But still, last year Morel spent some of his leftover campaign money, including $9296.44 on LSU tickets.

How does a retired DA justify spending $9,200 in campaign money on LSU tickets? “You can't,” Stonecipher responds, “you can't.”

The campaign finance law allows politicians to spend money on running for office or anything related to their current elected office.

“A lot of the expenditures are not directly related to winning elections,” Mann notes. “They're related to supporting the lifestyles of the candidates and not related to the election activities of the candidates.”

Many of the charges had vague descriptions - no real explanation of why they were considered to be campaign-related.

Here are some more examples:

  • Former Public Service Commissioner Dale Sittig is out of politics now. But he wrote 12 separate checks to Cleco last year for electricity at his camp in Rapides Parish. Sittig told us the camp is “used for political suppers, political gatherings, lodging for those that travel, plus adults with young children to come hunt and spend weekends.”
  • State Senator Elbert Guillory from Opelousas gave “donation and dues” to Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority – a $275 campaign expenditure.
  • New Orleans Civil Court Judge Piper Griffin donated $3,000 to St. Katherine Drexel School – and she sits on the school board. Griffin wrote us that she was “unfamiliar with any prohibition of donating campaign funds to a non-profit on which i sit on the board.”
  • With his campaign funds, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden bought a $1,000 parking pass for Southern University football games. And he paid dues at the prestigious Camelot Club. Holden told us he used both to entertain.
  • Jefferson Parish School Board member Ray St. Pierre spent campaign money on dues at Timberlane Country Club.
  • Ascension Parish Assessor Mert Smiley and State Senator Conrad Appel used campaign money for their Ducks Unlimited memberships. Both say it allows them to meet campaign supporters.
  • On Mardi Gras last year, Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner booked a room at the downtown Hilton Hotel and paid for it with campaign money. He told NOLA.com, “That's a way for me to go to the Bachus Ball and be with officials from the state and Jefferson Parish to build relationships that help the people I represent.” Kerner also bought wedding gifts and funeral flowers for constituents at Walgreens and Walmart.
  • Jefferson Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse used campaign money for his dues to Argus, at a cost of $9,500. Lagasse said he was able to promote himself and his public service.
  • Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni paid $5,700 for framings in 2013. In fact, since elected to office in 2010, Yenni's campaign has paid for 58 different framings, costing $25,000. Yenni told us the Ethics Board approved the spending, and said the framings were for city proclamations and “keys” to the city, as well some of his official portraits for city offices.
  • In March 2013, Orleans Criminal Court Judge Camille Buras bought dinner for constituents at Ruth's Chris. It cost $1,200.
  • At last year's Essence Festival. State Senator Ed Murray spent $2,400 at Morton's Steakhouse - not on steaks, appetizers or even desserts, but for “beverages” during the festival weekend.
“No one demands that they justify who was there, who were these people and what was the purpose of it,” Mann tells us.

And Stonecipher warns that no one is really trying to stop a practice that, for some politicians, has been going on for decades. “People of that generation politically simply don't understand why the state or anybody else has a right to talk to them about what they do with campaign contributions,” he says.

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Go to FOX8Live.com/LaPurchased for more reports in our "Louisiana Purchased" joint investigation of campaign finance, in partnership with NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

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