Lee Zurik Investigation: Some PAC limit violators cough up excess funds

PAC contributions are limited per election cycle to $60,000 for legislators and other district officers, and to $80,000 for major offices such as governor.
PAC contributions are limited per election cycle to $60,000 for legislators and other district officers, and to $80,000 for major offices such as governor.

Six politicians have returned a total of almost $300,000 in campaign contributions as a result of our series of investigations. They paid the money back after we detailed how they broke the law. Those findings apparently also launched an investigation by the La. Ethics Board. It's the latest development in our Louisiana Purchased joint investigation with NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

The law is clear: In one election cycle, state senators and representatives cannot receive more than $60,000 in campaign contributions from political action committees, or PAC's. For a statewide official such as governor or secretary of state, the limit is $80,000 per election.

We found nine public officials who may have broke that law - some, multiple times.

"The fact they have kind of violated the law calls into question what's going on in their campaigns," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak.

Senate President John Alario broke that law in two straight elections, 2007 and 2011. The 2015 election hasn't happened yet, but he already has exceeded the limit for that one, too.

Late last year, Alario returned $102,000 in contributions. Alario made the returns after our story and told us by email that "all refunds were returned voluntarily."

We found House Speaker Chuck Kleckley also went over the legal limit for two elections. Late last year, Kleckley returned $73,000 to campaign donors.

In response to a request by NOLA.com for comment, Kleckley wrote, "After my CPA completed the reconciliation of my campaign financial reports for this election cycle, all contributions collected over PAC limits were voluntarily returned to contributors in accordance with and as required by law."

"The Ethics Board has been sitting on this same information for years and done nothing," says political watchdog and blogger C.B. Forgotston. It serves to highlight the ineffectiveness of the Ethics Board."

It's unclear if any of these elected officials will face any penalty from the Ethics Board. All of the board's discussions are private.

"As I understand it, they're just going to pay back the money," notes Forgotston. "That's like me getting caught, robbing a bank. I'd say, 'Oops, you caught me, here's all the money back - see you around.' No jail time, no penalties, nothing. And that's exactly what seems to be the situation… these are lawmakers. Not only are you and I held to know what the law is, but the lawmakers who made the laws - and specifically made these new ethics laws - should know exactly what's in them."

According to a letter sent to the attorney for state Senator J.P. Morrell, the Ethics Board did launch a "confidential investigation" - and if Morrell didn't pay back money, they would "file suit in this matter."

Our initial story showed Morrell owed $61,000. But according to the letter from the Ethics Board, Morrell attributed some contributions to the wrong election cycle in his reporting, basically making a clerical error. So the campaign fixed that mistake, and also returned $22,000 in excessive contributions earlier this month.

Morrell's campaign sent this statement in response to a request for comment by NOLA.com: "Since your story regarding contributions received from political committees in excess of the aggregate limits was published, the JP Morrell Campaign, Inc. has been contact with the Louisiana Board of Ethics. The Board determined that the amount to be returned was $22,440.00. The JP Morrell Campaign, Inc. returned $22,750.00 to 14 different entities… The funds used to provide this return were a combination of campaign dollars on hand, funds raised at a previously scheduled fundraiser on February 12th, and $15,750.00 loaned to the campaign by Senator Morrell."

Also returning money is state Senator Danny Martiny, who violated the PAC law in two elections. Martiny told us last November he would voluntarily return the excess money and he did, giving back $73,333.37.

Martiny sent NOLA.com this statement: "When you first ran your story I personally contacted the Board of Ethics & self-reported the excess & requested guidance as to how to properly return the excess. As to whether the funds were returned voluntarily, you may rest assured that they were. Although I was advised that technically, because more than one year had gone by since the excess funds were reported to Campaign Finance, I did not legally have to return any of the excess, it was always my intention (as I stated to Lee Zurik) to return any funds received that were over the limit. And I did do."

State Senator Eric LaFleur returned $33,000 and the state's agriculture commissioner, Mike Strain, gave back $12,000.

LaFleur offered this comment to NOLA.com: "Our PAC refunds are voluntary. Current law provides that the prescriptive period for enforcement actions taken pursuant to the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act if the violation is contained in a report, before one year has elapsed from the filing of the report. In our case, all contributions including PAC donations to the campaign were properly and timely reported. We were not aware, however, that we exceeded the limit until your report. Regardless, we are going to refund PAC contributions from that election cycle that exceeded the state limit."

All totaled, the Ethics Board collected $288,188.37 in returned campaign money.

Our reports showed three others may have exceeded the legal limit: Francis Heitmeier, Elbert Guillory and Yvonne Dorsey. So far they haven't returned any money, and the Ethics Board hasn't taken any official action against any elected official who may have broken the law.

Forgotston says he thinks he knows why. "If the Ethics Board comes down too hard - particularly on one of these prominent elected officials like Senator Alario - they know their budget's going to get cut," Forgotston contends.

The Ethics Board reports that the outstanding balance for campaign finance fines has risen slightly, from $1,240,155 on Nov. 22 to $1,334,560 as of the latest reporting Feb. 24. The new total takes into account more than $86,000 in fine payments, but also includes new fines issued since November.

All political candidates, PAC's, lobbyists and other individuals must file regular reports to the board, which may issue fines for such violations as filing late reports or failing to disclose all campaign contributions and expenditures. Outstanding fines are reported by the Ethics Board online at its web site, http://ethics.la.gov/default.aspx.

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