Lee Zurik Investigation: 2013 campaign data show Alario, Heitmeier still living large

Senate President John Alario
Senate President John Alario
Former lawmaker Francis Heitmeier
Former lawmaker Francis Heitmeier

In 2013, Louisiana Senate President John Alario spent $152,000 of his campaign money - the majority of it - on tickets, food, a car, gas and travel.

"They couldn't get away with writing this stuff off as a business deduction in their businesses," notes political watchdog C.B. Forgotston. "But somehow they can. I mean, it's all personal expenses. I can't write off a gift to my niece, but you can write this off. And not only that, these are tax-free dollars."

Yes, this is campaign money, so Alario didn't have to pay any taxes. So if Alario had to pay that $152,000 out of his own checking account, he would have needed to earn about $210,000, and then pay taxes.

In 2013, Alario bought tickets for his suites at Tiger Stadium and at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He spent $10,000 at the New Orleans Arena and $6,300 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Alario spent nearly $11,000 on food in 2013. In March he went to Antoine's and in May he spent $441 at Galatoire's - one of two trips he made there last year. Alario had six meals at Copeland's, seven at Zea's and four at Ruth's Chris - the priciest sitting there was in September, at $860.

In May, Alario even charged his campaign $137 at Rouse's grocery store.

Alario paid $700 a month to BMW for a car lease, and had eight trips where his campaign paid for airfare – all travel relating to official duties, according to the descriptions he added to his campaign disclosure form. We have no idea where Alario went or how it related to his campaign or office.

"It's immaterial what you put in those blank lines," says Forgotston. "There's no scrutiny of them."

Former lawmaker Francis Heitmeier still has money remaining in his campaign and PAC accounts.

"What is Francis Heitmeier running for?" asks Forgotston, incredulously.

To Heitmeier, who hasn't run for office since 2006, it doesn't matter.

Last year, $27,000 - or 77 percent of his money - went to tickets, paying for his Saints and LSU suites.

Heitmeier also used campaign funds for nearly $4,000 at restaurants. Heitmeier went to Ruth's Chris, Pascal's Manale and Houston's – again, spending campaign money, even though he's been out of office since 2007.

"I never wanted to run for public office," jokes Forgotston. "I'm starting to think, wow, if I could get enough fools to put up a $100,000 for me in a PAC, I'd kind of hope to lose. And then I wouldn't spend but about a thousand dollars, just qualifying - I'd have $99,000 left over. Man, I could live well. I could rent me a Jaguar like John Alario. I could go to all these games and buy all these tickets. And if anyone questioned me, I'm saying, 'Well, don't know what the future's going to bring… I don't know whether I'm going to run. I may run again, I may run for the Hammond City Council."

Neither Alario nor Heitmeier have returned our requests for comment on this report, part of our "Louisiana Purchased" joint investigation of campaign finance with NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

Louisiana House and Senate members began the 2041 session Monday with a midday address by Gov. Bobby Jindal, another of the officials noted in our reporting. He thanked legislators, in part for their overhaul of state ethics laws. Jindal did not offer any specific new reforms of campaign finance law in the address.

We asked the governor's office whether he has any renewed interest in campaign finance reform following our investigation. Shannon Bates, the governor's deputy press secretary, sent us this statement by email:

We're always open to reviewing ideas that bring more transparency to campaign finance and build on our previous ethics reforms. In 2008, we overhauled our ethics laws and Louisiana now has some of the toughest ethics laws in the nation. As a result, the laws are much clearer, and legislators now must disclose their finances. We also enhanced transparency in lobbyist activities, requiring more detailed monthly public spending reports. All of these reforms now mean that who you know is no longer more important than what you know when it comes to doing business in our state, and they've helped us cultivate an environment where businesses want to invest and create jobs.

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