Lee Zurik Investigation: Political war chests hold plenty of perks

To many in the state of Louisiana, they're the luxuries of life: a Superdome suite, a nice car, meals at the finest New Orleans restaurants. And for most Louisianans, the price of luxury comes from their own checking accounts.

But most in this state aren't part of this select group of elected officials.

FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune spent months studying campaign records, finding that nine public officials apparently have broken campaign finance laws, raising more money from political action committees, or PAC's, than the law allows. And we found many of these politicians are using their campaign war chests - and that extra, potentially illegal money - for questionable purposes, such as football tickets and meals.

Senator John Alario hasn't faced an opponent since 2007. But that hasn't stopped him from spending half a million dollars of campaign money. In the past four years, the senate president has spent $508,000 from his campaign war chest.

Keep in mind, our story Tuesday night showed Alario may have broken that PAC limit law three straight elections, collecting a total of almost $100,000 more than the legal limit.

Alario much of that campaign cash on tickets to LSU, Saints, Hornets and other games, as well as to Jazz Fest and events at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. All totaled in the past four years, Alario's spent almost $60,000 on tickets - all from his campaign funding.

"Are you enriching yourself? I think that's really the key question," says Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a non-profit research group. PAR wants legislators to tighten the laws.

"Basically you don't want a system in which campaign contributions really end up being nothing more than a gift," insists Scott, "being nothing more than something that will enrich that candidate or that political office holder."

But right now, the law is so vague that candidates can spend money on anything - as long as they can somehow relate it to their campaign or their elected office. And the state's campaign finance reports don't force candidates to be specific about purchases.

Political analyst Ed Chervenak says, "If the law's written that way, it's because they want to make it vague, so that they just have to answer in a particular way, in a nice, vague manner. They don't have to specific about exactly where that money went. And that's to their advantage."

The law allows Alario to spend money on meals. All totaled for the last four years, he spent almost $28,000 at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Antoine's Commander's Palace, Galatoire's and other fine eateries.

From 2009 through 2012, Alario also spent $52,000 on automobile leases, and more than $51,000 on fuel and travel.

"You would assume that the line should be drawn, that money that is spent from a campaign is used for campaign-related expenses such as media, polling, legal fees, fundraising," says Chervenak.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley appears to have violated the PAC contribution limit in 2011 and 2015. He also has questionable expenditures from his campaign.

Kleckley is from Lake Charles, but in 2012 he had a spouses' luncheon at Muriel's in Jackson Square, paying $2,300 out of his campaign war chest. Kleckley's constituents likely spend most of their time in western Louisiana - but according to his campaign finance report, he dined with some at Drago's and Mikes on the Avenue in New Orleans, and charged his campaign for it. All totaled, meals cost Kleckley's campaign $18,000. He spent another $20,000 on tickets to LSU and McNeese State games.

"That's the great thing about running for office, you get to spend other people's money on things like this," Chervenak jokes. "I'm not going to say it's right."

State Senator Danny Martiny appears to have violated the PAC limit for two straight elections, and in the past four years he used that campaign money on tickets to Saints and LSU games – at a cost of $36,000.

State Senator J.P. Morrell raised an additional $60,000 over the PAC limit. Morrell spent nearly $20,000 on meals, though it's unclear with whom he's been dining. His campaign finance reports have vague references to meals with unidentified staff or constituents. In a four-year period, state records show, Morrell charged 426 different meals to his campaign.

Francis Heitmeier left politics in 2008 with hundreds of thousands of dollars left in his campaign account. But in that time out of office, he's been spending that campaign money - more than $335,000.

Heitmeier is now a lobbyist, but he still spent at least $9,000 on meals and $58,000 on tickets & catering at sporting events. And he even brought graduation gifts for relatives, paying with campaign funds.

"That seems a bit out of bounds," says Chervenak. "Why would you be using someone else's money to purchase a gift for your graduating niece?"

And there's state Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb from Baton Rouge. Records show she exceeded the state's PAC contributions limit by $26,000, and she also has questionable spending in her campaign.

Dorsey reimbursed herself money from her campaign 12 times, with no explanation of why. The description shows a "reimbursement receipt" - all of the reimbursements to Dorsey-Colomb were rounded numbers. She wrote herself checks for $1,000, $2,000, $2,500, $3,000 - all totaled, nearly $16,000 in reimbursements to herself - with no explanation or reason.

"You're supposed to at least write in there what the purpose of [the expenditure] was," notes Scott.

The State Ethics Board has asked lawmakers to clear up the law, to clarify if some of this spending on tickets and meals should be legal.

"Legislators write the rules that regulate themselves," Chervenak tells us. "And they tend to write the rules to their advantage, their favor."

Legislators have resisted any change, sticking with a vague law that allows them to spend freely.

Scott says, "They've pushed back on the Ethics Board several times when there have been efforts to bring more definition."

And a lack of definition creates a law with a lot of gray areas, a law that some observers say allows questionable spending and opens up opportunities for corruption.

"You may have people who want you… to give you the campaign donations and want you to use it as a gift," says Scott. "That's the problem, that's what you have to recognize. It is private money, but it's also set up in a way that that private money could be used as a bribe, a gift, something to enrich you, whatever you want to call it. And there is a system that you could set up to do that – we've seen it happen."

What makes the findings in this story even more striking is that we found many elected officials who don't pay for meals out of their campaign account and don't charge donors for tickets to sporting events. It all raises questions about the intentions of many expenditures, and whether some politicians are using their campaign war chests partly as slush funds that allow them to spend thousands of dollars – tax-free - on food and fun.

“We’re very clear in this state, now, about gifts,” Scott reminds us. "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.