Lee Zurik Investigation: Contribution questions to Jindal go unanswered

Gov. Bobby Jindal at a May 2007 Central Progressive branch opening in Slidell with CPB CEO Dickie Blossman (left) and CPB President Brandon Faciane
Gov. Bobby Jindal at a May 2007 Central Progressive branch opening in Slidell with CPB CEO Dickie Blossman (left) and CPB President Brandon Faciane

Russell Long, the late U.S. Senator from Louisiana, once told his staff that money is to politics what fertilizer is to agriculture; it increases the yield.

If that's the case, then one industry, on a single day in 2012, delivered plenty of fertilizer to the state's most powerful politician – Governor Bobby Jindal.

It takes some time to look through every donation from October 24, 2012. Governor Jindal actually spent much of that Wednesday campaigning for Mitt Romney in Iowa. But on that day, he received 87 different donations from nursing homes - all totaled, $206,000.

Nursing Home Contribs

Just some of the contributions by nursing homes to Gov. Jindal on Oct. 24, 2012 - you can review all of that at this link

Finding out why has proven to be difficult. The head of the Nursing Home Association, Joe Donchess, says it's likely because Jindal asked for the money. If he did, the nursing homes delivered, with 17 percent of Jindal's 2012 contributions - $206,000 - on that one day in October 2012.

"Apparently either paying off campaign debts or wanting to run for something," explains Donchess. "And if he makes a request for campaign contributions, if our members choose to give, they'll give."

FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune spent months digging through Jindal's campaign finance reports. Some trends stick out.

We found connections between companies receiving state economic development money and campaign contributions to the governor.

A picture from October 12, 2011 shows Walter Thomassie, owner of Thoma-Sea shipbuilders in Terrebonne Parish, cracking a smile at the christening of a new dry dock. The state contributed 49 million to that project, greatly benefiting the company.

The same day the state announced the project, October 12, Thomassie donated $2,500 to Jindal's campaign. And Thomassie didn't donate alone. His mother and father, also affiliated with the company, made separate $2,500 donations on the same day.

"I don't remember making it on that date, but obviously I did if it's, you know, it's on record," Thomassie tells us in an interview by phone. "I just don't understand how it would be construed as anything other than a donation.

"We do straight-up business," Thomassie continues. "And to make a claim that we're doing something strange for favors, that's just very far off-base."

Tuesday night, we showed you Alexandria businessman Bryan Bossier. Bossier, family members, a business partner and 11 different companies sent Jindal, by way of 19 different checks, $95,000 in one day. Bossier has at least $50 million in state contracts and has been appointed to two boards by Jindal.

We found dozens and dozens of examples of members of state boards, appointed by Jindal, making big contributions.

The Fifth District Levee Board oversees 350 miles of levees in and near Tallulah. Members of that board are appointed by the governor; he can remove them at any time.

In 2011, two board members from Tallulah, Sam Hill and Jack Varner, their family members and corporations gave Jindal $53,000.


Documented contributions to Gov.Jindal by Fifth District Levee Board members Jack Varner and Sam Hill

We received this response from the Fifth District Levee Board to our inquiry:

Mr. Hill was originally appointed to the Board in 2001 under the Foster administration. Mr. Varner was originally appointed to the Board in 2006 under the Blanco administration. As far back as the early 1980's only 1 Commissioner has been replaced by a new administration. Most new appointees result from a resignation, a death, or a relocation of a member. Of the 8 members on the Fifth La Levee Board 6 are contributors of either or both the state and local level politics. Board members receive a per diem of $67.50 if they attend the monthly meeting, which is hardly a fair price considering the number of phone calls received concerning Levee District issues.

We looked at 12 different state boards where Jindal had direct authority to appoint, and we found 83 percent of the board members, their family members and their companies gave money. All totaled, they contributed $1.6 million to the governor's campaign war chest.

The most contributions we found came from the state's Board of Commerce and Industry. 15 of 16 members, their relatives and companies gave a total of $346,000.

The Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, came close at $286,000. The highest contributor in that group was New Orleans-area auto dealer Ray Brandt, who has given $50,000 to Jindal in donations from himself, his companies and family. The only Board of Regents member who didn't contribute was Dr. Albert Sams of Baton Rouge.

"You don't get on these boards, the LSU board or the Board of Regents, unless you're a contributor," says LSU professor Robert Mann, a former staffer for the late Senator Long and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "Or , unless you're someone like Albert Sam, who is a fine guy, he really is, who didn't give a dime. And the only reason he's on there is because they came up and realized that they didn't have one African American on the board, and they needed one. So they kicked a white man off and found an African-American doctor and put him on there. So that's the only way you can get on these boards, either give a lot of money or find yourself as someone who they need because they suddenly realize that they have no diversity whatsoever."

The LSU Board of Supervisors has a similar story: $288,000 from board members, families and companies. The most generous was Bobby Yarborough, owner of Manda Fine Meats. Yarborough and relatives gave Jindal $63,000.

We compared donations to Jindal and former governor Kathleen Blanco's appointments. On the Board of Regents, 93 percent of Jindal's appointees contributed; 77 percent of Blanco's appointees gave her campaign money.

But here's the even bigger difference - Jindal's appointees gave $276,000 to his campaign, while Blanco's gave $67,000.

And some of these board members may be breaking state law. The law says, if they contribute to the governor within one year of their board appointment, they have to make their contributions public on a financial disclosure form. In our review, we found a handful who apparently didn't.

Board of Regents appointee Chris Gorman gave Jindal $4,500 on November 8, 2010. The next month, Jindal sent out a news release, announcing Gorman had been appointed to the board. Gorman never made that public on his financial disclosure filing, an apparent violation of the law.

There's more. In 2012, North Shore businessman Dickie Blossman pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Blossman admitted to funneling money to board members of his bank, Central Progressive. The board members then donated that money to Jindal's campaign. In April 2007, the bank's 11 board members gave Jindal a total of $55,000

CPB contribs

Data source: La. Ethics Admin. Program

We tracked down a picture taken one month after the illegal donations, in May 2007: Jindal with Blossman at the opening of a Central Progressive Bank branch in Slidell. Five years later, prosecutors charged Blossman. Jindal's campaign returned the money in January of this year.

It's important to note just what the governor may be getting out of these contributions.

He's term-limited - he can't run for governor in two years. And this money can't be used on a federal election for president or Congress.

But if you look at his campaign finance reports, the millions of dollars Jindal has raised has allowed him to travel around the country, campaigning, boosting his national profile.

We found $63,000 in airfare, some on private jets. Jindal's campaign paid for $16,000 in hotel rooms. In one instance we found news reports of Jindal traveling to Park City, Utah to campaign with Mitt Romney. At the same time of those news reports, Jindal's campaign account paid for $1,000 at the Hotel Park City.

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

Gov. Jindal's campaign expenditures as documented for July 31, 2012, including the Hotel Park City expense.

Jindal also had a 2012 campaign payroll of $125,000 even though, again, he can't run for reelection. And in 2012, his Louisiana campaign fund paid $690,000 for political consulting, $4,200 for phones, $10,000 for campaign staff shirts.

We requested an interview with Jindal, by emails and a phone call. He never agreed to an interview

So when Jindal came to St. Tammany Parish last week for an economic development announcement, we showed up, once again asking for an interview. Jindal's press secretary, Kyle Plotkin, told us we could only ask "a question" while Jindal was at the podium.

As you can tell by our reporting, we had (and still have) a series of questions to ask the governor, documents to show him. So we tried to request an interview with the governor when the news conference concluded. Shielded by state troopers, the governor ignored our request.

Plotkin did deliver this brief statement to FOX 8 by email Wednesday:

The Governor's campaign has over 42,000 donors. The Governor is fortunate to have the support of thousands of people across Louisiana.

People who contributed to the Governor's campaign are supporting his agenda for moving the state forward, not the other way around.

Appointments to boards and commissions are made, and the senate confirms them, based on a person's experience and whether it's in the best interest of the state.

Contracts are determined by individual agencies and typically have to be vetted through a competitive bid process.

The Gambit newspaper and the website LouisianaVoice.com also have published stories on Jindal taking campaign contributions from board members.

We reached out to everyone mentioned in this report.  For everyone who gave donations to Jindal, we included a response if they gave us one.

Ray Brandt of the La. Board of Regents sent this written statement to us Thursday:

I'm a true public servant, I gave money to the governor for the betterment of the people and expected nothing in return. I don't have an expense accounts, I don't seek reimbursement and I get no form of compensation... These are demanding jobs that require a lot of education and a lot of expertise. I believe the governor selected me because he knows I work hard and I'm prepared. It's horrible that people like you put a spin on this to make people look bad.