Lee Zurik Investigation: Senate pres. spends $253K on Saints, Tigers

Senate Pres. John Alario (Source: NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune)
Senate Pres. John Alario (Source: NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune)
Former Senator Francis Heitmeier (Source: La. State Senate)
Former Senator Francis Heitmeier (Source: La. State Senate)
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S.N.D.V. - it's an abbreviation that LSU football fans know well. It stands for "Saturday night in Death Valley," the latter reference a nickname for Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.

For a group of especially powerful Tiger fans, it is also the perfect name for the company they've formed.

S.N.D.V. is also a limited liability corporation, registered with the Secretary of State's office. It leases a Tiger Stadium suite. And every fall, La. Senate President John Alario and former lawmaker Francis Heitmeier pay for part of that suite, writing checks to their own company - S.N.D.V., LLC. Part of the money comes from their political action committees, or PAC's. That's another campaign account, in addition to the one they use to run for office.

UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak says PAC's controlled by politicians should have a specific purpose.

"The PAC money should be going to other campaigns, primarily, to help support other candidates," says Chervenak. "That's the whole justification for PAC's, is that it's a way to raise money and distribute money to candidates for their campaigns."

Politicians in Louisiana have formed 13 different political action committees:

  • Alario PAC
  • HPAC
  • Badge Star PAC
  • Vision PAC
  • TPAC
  • Riser PAC
  • Traits of Leadership PAC
  • Plaquemines PAC
  • Leadership for Louisiana
  • Budget Reform PAC

The majority do as Chervenak suggests they should: collect money to give to other politicians.

These PAC's give politicians a way around campaign finance laws.

Lawmakers cannot receive more than $2,500 for each election. But a PAC can bring in much more, as much as $100,000 per donor.

"That avoided the campaign limits to their personal funds," says political watchdog C.B. Forgotston. "People wanted to still give them money, and once you've maxed out, you got to have some other way for them to give money."

We found many examples of that happening.

Altria Client Services, the parent of tobacco company Phillip Morris, gave $25,000 to John Alario's PAC. Several nursing homes gave the limit of $2,500 to Senator David Heitmeier's campaign, so they gave even more to his Vision PAC.

"That allows you much more flexibility in contributions and donations to other candidates," says Chervenak.

But two politicians are anomalies when it comes to their PAC's - John Alario and Francis Heitmeier.

Alario has not one but two PAC's: Alario PAC and SPKR PAC. Late last year, his brother Terry Alario took over control of SPKR PAC.

Over the past four years, Alario's PAC's have contributed about $40,000 to other politicians - that's about 18 percent of the total PAC money he's spent. It just so happens that all but one of those contributions came around the same time that Alario was working to become Senate president, a process voted on by his Senate colleagues.

52 percent of Alario's PAC money has been spent on tickets to sporting events, theater and music. Again, only 18 percent went to other campaigns.

"It doesn't pass the smell test," Chervenak contends. "What's legal and what's right obviously can be confusing. You would think that if the money is donated to a PAC, it should go to other campaigns. It shouldn't be used for personal expenses."

But the real questions are raised when you look at the total amount of expenditures from PAC and regular campaign accounts.

All totaled, Alario has spent $26,259.25 on gas, $43,874.37 on food, and $98,820.70 on car notes and repairs, according to his own reporting to the La. Ethics Board.

Chervenak tells us, "It really calls into question whether this money is being used appropriately or not."

In the past four years, Alario's three campaign war chests - his election campaign, Alario PAC and SPKR PAC - have spent $253,547.72 on tickets. They spent $57,784 on Saints tickets and $91,082 on LSU tickets, including all donations to the Tiger Athletic Foundation. He's also bought tickets for Jazz Fest, the Hornets and the Zurich Classic.

On average, the senator from Westwego has spent about $63,000 a year related to ticket purchases. That's more than he earns in his public job - as senate president he makes $32,000 a year. Before that, he made $16,800 as a member of the Senate.

"It doesn't make sense," Chervenak says. "They're there to do the business of the people. They're not supposed to be there for various perks and other benefits like that. They're supposed to be citizen legislators - that's why they only sit for a certain period of time, that's why they're not paid a lot of money. But they're using it as a means to basically accumulate money in these accounts and then use them for their own personal spending."

According to Alario's campaign finance reports, he has used six different campaign credit cards: American Express, Capital One, Chase, Citi Card, Discover and Sam's Club.

Many times, Alario uses multiple campaign accounts to fund his spending. On March 15, 2010, he purchased $8,600 worth of LSU tickets and split the purchase among his campaign account and two PAC's. Later that month, Alario made three payments to the Headliners Club, which operates a suite at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The total cost out of his three campaign accounts was almost $11,500.

"Welcome to the world of Louisiana politics, where the idea is that you try and get over," Chervenak tells us. "And this is just one way that legislators are able to get over."

Francis Heitmeier left office in 2006, but he has continued to spend out of his campaign war chest and the account of H PAC, his own political action committee.

In the last four years, Heitmeier has spent $9,621.49 on meals and $94,484.65 on tickets - about half of that to S.N.D.V. for that LSU suite.

"It seems to violate the principles of propriety, that they're using money for their own personal benefit," Chervenak says.

What's more, Heitmeier's expenditure descriptions are incomplete in his campaign spending reports; his numbers simply don't add up. We have no idea where Heitmeier spent $35,574.96.

"There is this sense that they're using the money for whatever they want," Chervenak insists. "It's almost like a legal bribe. People are handing over money and then really don't care how that money is spent."

Heitmeier hasn't run for office since 2006. Alario hasn't faced an opponent since 2007.

"It doesn't really set a good example for the rest of the legislators," Chervenak suggests. "I mean, if your leadership is out there spending money hand over foot for tickets and for suites, that sends a message to the rest of the legislators that they can do the same thing."

Watchdogs say Louisianans should care about this issue.

"I don't see any effort to change the rules, because the legislators write the rules and they're the biggest abusers of it," Forgotston admits.

If a politician takes a bribe in the form of LSU tickets, he can go to jail. But the way the system's set up now, he can take campaign money from a donor, buy an LSU suite and watch the Tigers play Saturday night in Death Valley, without ever breaking the law.

"You may have people who want you, who give you campaign donations and want you to use it as a gift," suggests Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. "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, or 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."

We asked Senator Alario and the Heitmeiers for comment on this story. As of this writing, we have received only this response from Sen. David Heitmeier:

"While it's an honor and a privilege to serve in the Louisiana Senate, my career before, during and following public service is providing eye care to my patients. There are candidates who I like and share my beliefs on issues so I have supported them through the Vision PAC. There is no hidden agenda nor hidden name. As you can clearly see through the reports you reviewed, contributors know they are contributing to the Vision PAC and they can see how the money was spent. Every contribution and every donation of the Vision PAC meets the state guidelines.

"We are fortunate to have an outstanding ethics administration program in this state and you can also clearly see who has contributed to the Senator David Heitmeier Campaign fund and how those funds have been used. I direct the use of those funds purely for legally approved campaign related expenses.

"SNDV LLC is a group of friends who pooled resources to enjoy LSU football. My contribution to the effort have always been my personal funds. I attend as many games as I can to cheer on the Tigers."

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