Lee Zurik Investigation: Questions abound in Alario’s campaign spending reports

Updated: May. 2, 2014 at 2:40 PM CDT
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Senate Pres. John Alario, listening to testimony at an April meeting of the Joint Legislative...
Senate Pres. John Alario, listening to testimony at an April meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

For six months, we've seen and shown you tens of thousands of dollars of questionable campaign spending by Senate President John Alario. Now we have new, pointed questions for the long-time lawmaker - because what we've seen may not be accurate. It's the latest installment of "Louisiana Purchased," a joint investigation of campaign finance by FOX 8 News and Times Picayune.

Jefferson Parish voters first put the accountant from Westwego in office back in 1972.

"John Alario is clearly the most powerful individual in state government," says political observer C.B. Forgotston. "He has a political personality that's second to none… You don't want him as your enemy."

That political acumen has put him in leadership positions for Edwin Edwards, a staunch Democrat, and Bobby Jindal, a loyal Republican. Alario switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 2010.

But after we reviewed the senate president's campaign finance filings, we want to know how someone in office for 42 years can have so many mistakes on his campaign reports.

"These numbers do not match," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak. "They just either are bad at math or just don't care about the numbers."

On September 7, 2011, Alario PAC - one John Alario's two political action committees - hosted a fundraiser at the Audubon Golf Clubhouse. According to Audubon's records, the event cost $6,119.48 - that's what the Alario campaign actually paid Audubon.

Alario's campaign reported to the state a payment to Audubon of $3185.34 for that fundraiser. His political action committee also claimed it paid Audubon $6559.99.

So, between his campaign and his PAC, John Alario says he made $9745.33 in payments for a fundraiser that cost $6,119.48 – that's a $3625.85 discrepancy.

If Alario didn't spend all of that money on Audubon, where did it go?

He told us by email, "When the reports were originally filed, Audubon, along with other campaign fund-raising and campaign activities were grouped and reported as a lump-sum."

Chervenak says, "That would be very odd. It seems the law would want you to be very specific about what you're being charged for at these various venues."

We emailed Alario back and asked him to "provide us with receipts and/or invoices of the additional fund-raising and campaign activities that were grouped with Audubon." He never responded.

The campaign report that included the $6559.99 Audubon payment didn't have much on it.

Alario only had five expenditures to report accurately to the Louisiana Ethics Board.

"They obviously should be able to make these accurate," says Chervenak. "These are smart people. They know what they're doing."

In February we told you how, in the past four years, Alario's three different campaign accounts spent about $253,000 on tickets. But according to records we obtained from LSU, that also may not be accurate.

In 2011, Alario's three campaign accounts reported $24,182 of spending on LSU tickets with the university's athletic department. But records from LSU show Alario actually spent about $6,695 that year.

Alario told us by email that we weren't factoring in all of his contributions to the Tiger Athletic Foundation, and he sent a document purporting to show his yearly contributions to TAF. He said two of the January 2011 checks on his campaign report were written to the TAF, but should be credited to the prior year, 2010.

His document shows he donated $8,650 to TAF in 2011. But if that's the case, it still leaves $2,337 of unaccounted spending in 2011, and $7,272 for 2010. That's $9,609 of undocumented campaign spending over a two-year period.

"This calls into question, where is that extra money?" asks Chervenak. "Exactly what are you doing with this money, and why are we finding all these discrepancies over and over and over?"

In 2008, he claimed $21,568.56 in LSU ticket purchases. LSU records show only $5,900 and Alario's own sheet of TAF donations show $7,950 for 2008 - that's $7,718.56 in unknown expenses. And in 2007, the unknown expenses from LSU tickets were $1,228.32.

That raises the total undocumented expenses, reported by Alario as payments to LSU and Audubon, to $22,181.72.

Chervenak says, "If you're finding it consistently across years and across fundraising events, obviously there's something going on, much deeper than clerical errors."

And when we dug back even further, we found even more discrepancies.

Remember, Alario gave us a document that shows how much he donated to the Tiger Athletic Foundation each year. In 2002, it notes he donated $200.

But Alario's campaign report from 2002 shows $650 to the TAF.

"The question is, where did the $500 go?" says Forgotston.

When we asked Alario about the differences in 2002 and 2008, he responded, "I don't have records that go back as far as 2008 and 2002."

There's more. Political action committees have to report contributions they make to candidates. We compared those to the contributions reported by Alario. We found about $9517.60 that various PAC's reported giving Alario. But Alario didn't claim it on his campaign finance reports. One example is Future PAC, which reported giving Alario $1,000 in 2012. But that donation never appeared on Alario's report.

Alario told us he had "no documentation" on any of these contributions.

"Someone is misinforming the state about those campaign contributions," Chervenak asserts.

And our probe went a step further and compared Alario's campaign spending to the money that taxpayers gave him personally, through reimbursements by the Louisiana State Senate.

Alario's 2012 campaign finance report shows an $1,800 payment to a Hilton hotel. Senate documents show a receipt from the same time period for a Hilton hotel - total cost, $1,800. Alario was reimbursed about $1,100 from that bill by the senate.

So the taxpayers paid Alario $1,100 for something he already paid for out of his campaign account.

Alario told us by email, "I will be reimbursing the campaign fund $1158.20 to correct this error."

"The question is whether your people are incompetent or whether they're corrupt," says Chervenak, "and obviously no one wants to be accused of being either."

We've only been able to probe a small slice of Alario's campaign spending because most of his campaign money went to private organizations, as opposed to Audubon and LSU, which are public entities. We cannot request records from private organizations under the state's public records law, so it's impossible for us to tell if the rest of his reports are accurate.

Chervenak says we've found enough to warrant an investigation.

"It's pretty hard evidence," says Chervenak. "You've got facts and figures and data and dollar figures. That should basically raise some red flags about how he's spending some of this money."

Being senate president is just one of Alario's jobs. He also operates an income tax service - Alario is an accountant. "He ought to be able to explain the difference, where it went," says Forgotston.

Every campaign report is signed, either by hand or electronically, by Alario, certifying that the information is true. But we've found more than $20,000 in what appears to be undocumented spending, by the dean of the Louisiana legislature.

Are these simply clerical errors?

"We don't know," says Chervenak. "You find it one time, it might be a clerical error. But when you see it more than once, if there's a pattern developing, then you're going to be more suspicious about exactly what's happening and where this money is going."

We have repeatedly asked Alario for an on-camera interview. So far, he has declined.

Also, we've asked Alario if we could review his campaign bank and credit card records. He hasn't responded to that request.

Correction: An earlier version of this report identified Sen. Alario as a certified public accountant. While he is an accountant, he is not a CPA.

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