Lee Zurik Investigation: One word means a fortune in campaign spending reports

We reviewed more than 66,000 campaign expenditures from 2009-2012 by La. House and Senate members. Most are categorized in this chart.
We reviewed more than 66,000 campaign expenditures from 2009-2012 by La. House and Senate members. Most are categorized in this chart.

A word – it takes just a few seconds to write it on a chalkboard, or type it on a keyboard. But one word in particular has a powerful effect when used in a campaign expenditure report.

"It is a powerful word, a catch word that they put in there and then it makes everything legal," says Ed Chervenak, a UNO professor and political analyst.

We're talking about a word that politicians hear and use every day.

"Constituent," explains Chervenak. "These are the individuals that lawmakers serve and represent."

That may be the definition - but the reality is that the word "constituent" allow some elected officials to spend freely.

"If you place the word 'constituent' in there, you're given a free ride," Chervenak notes. "That's going to be the key phrase that gives them plausible deniability on how they're spending this money."

Politicians can place the word "constituent" in the description part of their campaign finance report, and it basically makes any expenditure legal.

In four years, a group of elected officials spent almost half a million dollars out of their campaign war chests, writing off meals and gifts as constituent-related expenses.

One of the biggest constituent spenders is Representative Stephen Pugh of Ponchatoula. He charged 160 different constituent meetings and meals to his campaign. In the expenditures descriptions for those items, he reports that he gave a constituent advice on how to enter the priesthood; met with a constituent asking for advice and help for selling a business; dined with another constituent to discuss bringing video bingo back. The list goes on and on - meals with constituents, written off to his campaign.

"I don't even know what they're talking about here, in terms of 'constituent advice,' says Chervenak. "Why are they spending money to dispense advice to their constituents? Seems very odd."

In 2009, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard spent almost $1,000 on wedding gifts for constituents.

Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner bought constituents wedding gifts at Bed Bath and Beyond, Dillard's and Bella Lita Spa.

In 2011, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand spent almost $2,000 of campaign money on wedding gifts.

"What does that have to do with your campaign fund?" Chervenak wonders. "[Campaign contributors] are not giving you money to buy wedding gifts; they're giving you money so that you can be elected into office."

Normand told us by phone Wednesday that he only gives such gifts when he's invited to a wedding because of his status as sheriff - and he said he never buys gifts for personal friends or family with campaign funds.

But the questionable expenditures go beyond money spent on constituents.

Former St. John Parish Sheriff Wayne Jones charged $507 at a Hooters restaurant, and labeled it an expense for a wedding on his campaign report.

"I'd be interested to learn what the people who contribute money to these individuals would have to say about some of these expenditures," says Chervenak. "I'm sure that's got to upset some people."

State Rep. Jim Morris, representing the Shreveport area, charged $8,000 of dry cleaning to his campaign. In one month, he made six different trips to the dry cleaners, charging almost $400 to his campaign.

Alexandria lawmaker Herbert Dixon spent more money than any other legislator on food - $35,000 in four years.

"It just goes to show that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of oversight, basically, on how this money is being spent," says Chervenak.

And just look at a compilation of Dixon's campaign finance reports: There are about 250 instances where he spent campaign money and only labeled it a meal. For example, there's an expenditure of $528 at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Baton Rouge, and a $363 meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House.

"It is absolutely a slush fund," says C.B. Forgotston, who has spent four decades around politics. He used to work in the state house, and now acts as a watchdog and a blogger.

"The biggest abusers of the pay-to-play system are the legislators who make the law," says Forgotston. "And they're not fools when they make the law."

The way the law is written is so vague, as long as a politician can pass an expense off as relating to a campaign or an elected office, it's legal. Basically, if a politician uses that word "constituent," it's an allowable expense. Forgotston says such officials are "using the money for basic living expenses while saying, 'That's part of the cost of holding office.'"

And no one ever digs deeper to see if these reports are in fact accurate.

"Can you imagine if there was no audit of our IRS forms?" Forgotston wonders.

Receipts are never disclosed, so it's impossible to see if actual spending matches what's being submitted to the Ethics Board.

"It's just a fictional description of how you spend your money," insists Forgotston.

From 2009 through 2012, politicians spent nearly $700,000 from their campaign war chests on tickets to LSU sporting events, $69,000 on the Hornets and Pelicans, and more than $67 thousand on the Saints.

"I don't know why going, sitting at a LSU football game or a McNeese football game or a Saints game in any way benefits your constituents," Forgotston tells us.

The most popular restaurant for politicians' campaign money is Ruth's Chris, followed by Sal and Judy's on the North Shore and Andrea's in Metairie.

Politicians spent $300,000 on Mardi Gras-related expenses - much of that money was paid as dues to krewes, sometimes where the politicians rode masked in a parade.

Even after he left office as St. Charles Parish's district attorney, Harry Morel continued to spend campaign money. Morel used campaign money for dues at Cypress Lakes Country Club in Destrehan, and dues for his law fraternity.When we spoke with Morel by phone, he says he's been spending his campaign funds on such membership dues for 20 or 30 years, and that such spending is allowed under state law. He called our attention on the matter "sort of silly... very unfair."

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain bought not one, but two cars with campaign money. In 2010, he purchased a $25,000 campaign vehicle from Northpark Nissan. Two years later, he spent nearly $40,000 on a campaign vehicle from Brian Harris Autoplex. Strain's campaign also paid for vehicle insurance.

Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain gave us this statement regarding the vehicles:

Prior to purchase of the first vehicle in 2010, and again prior to its replacement in 2012, I received approval of the expenditures from the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

By the way, Strain hasn't faced an election opponent since 2003.

FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reviewed hundreds of campaign finance reports. From that review, we determined that the majority of campaign money was spent on campaign-related expenses: polls, consultants, commercials and such. And most politicians' spending did not raise any red flags. That makes some of the spending we're highlighting here stand out.

"I don't understand why some people are and some people aren't," says Chervenak. "There may be a sense of entitlement for some public officials."

He says politicians need to tighten the law. "It seems like, given the vagueness of language in the statute, that they can basically use these accounts as their personal checking accounts," observes Chervenak.

It's a law that the Public Affairs Research Council says is set up to allow private money to be used as a bribe.

"We're very clear in this state now, about gifts," says PARC president Robert Travis Scott. "You don't give cash gifts to politicians. So let's not create a campaign finance system that simply allows the same thing to happen in a technically legal way."

Right now, as long as you write this one word, "constituent," a politician can spend campaign money on basically anything they want.

"If your job is to represent your constituents – that's your primary responsibility as a legislator – does this mean you should be spending the money they're contributing to you on wedding gifts, on Saints tickets, on meals and travel, on flowers, on automobiles? That's extremely questionable."

On 4,375 expenditure reports, politicians never gave any description on what they spent their campaign funds on - they left that part blank. All totaled, about $640,000 of campaign expenses were reported without a description, so we have no idea what politicians spent that money on.