Lee Zurik Investigation: Campaign finance reforms head to Jindal’s desk

BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - Our "Louisiana Purchased" series helped change laws in the state's 2014 legislative session. One good government group says, while it's a step in the right direction, the reforms still don't address some big picture issues.

In the past, simple words lacking detail - "reimbursement," for instance, or "meal" - have been good enough to pass the ethics test in our state.

The vague description "reimbursement receipts" allowed La. Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb to write herself $15,000 in checks from her campaign accounts. We call the description on her campaign report vague because, at just two words, we really have very little idea why Dorsey paid herself that money.

The word "meal" allowed Representative Herbert Dixon to spend about $48,000 on meals. Dixon provided no explanation of the meals, only writing that single word on his report.

Under House Bill 1079, both of these lawmakers would have to provide more information about such campaign expenses in the future.

Rep. Tim Burns, primary author of HB 1079, says the bill will "require that the use be clarified better... that it's used for a political or campaign purpose."

Burns' bill forces politicians to be more descriptive in relating expenses to campaigns or their public office.

"You have a new law which says you've got to give a description," notes Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. "What we're hoping is that this will have a little bit of a chilling effect on those office holders or campaigners who might be tempted to spend some of the money in an inappropriate way, that they'll know they have to provide a description of it."

What the new law doesn't do is define which expenses are legal and which are forbidden.

"None of this changes exactly what is okay to spend your campaign finance money on," says Scott. "It doesn't make new things eligible for it and some things not. This is the same standard as we had before, but it is a different standard of disclosure."

So this won't stop many politicians from spending money on meals, football tickets, gas or gifts.

The head of PAR says the law is a good step, but a small one; the campaign finance system will still allow for questionable spending.

"The whole idea here is, if you're taking a campaign donation and then converting that into spending on something for yourself, to enrich yourself or to enrich your family or to enhance your lifestyle, then it's really not that much different from a bribe," says Scott. "You may even have donors who want to give you money, knowing that you're going to use it for yourself personally."

There were other campaign finance reforms in the 2014 session, which ended Monday. Earlier this year, we showed you how St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain bought two vehicles with campaign money. House Bill 264 would bar a campaign from making that type of purchase. But the measure still allows a campaign to lease vehicles.

This year's reforms aside, state law will continue to allow politicians to pay for meals and reimbursements, as long as they provide just a little more detail on their campaign finance report.

"I think it is a good first step," says Burns, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. "Let's just see what it produces, if you will, in disclosure and in the next wave of reports that it will be subject to. And I think we'll just take a look and see if any more action is required."

HB 264 and HB 1079 await Governor Bobby Jindal's signature.

Other campaign finance bills considered this session include the following:

  • HB 107 (Ritchie): Would have prohibited legislators from taking campaign contributions from people nominated for Tulane University scholarships that lawmakers award and from the nominees' families (considered by House committee but did not advance).
  • HB 321 (Hensgens): Would have required a person or company with a state contract of $10,000 or more to disclose contributions in statewide elections for two years before and two years after the contract's signing (referred to House committee, never considered).
  • HB 695 (Burns): Gives the Ethics Board authority to request clarification or additional information from candidates regarding campaign finance disclosures (passed both houses; sent to governor for signature).
  • SB 218 (Dorsey-Colomb): Would have raised aggregate limits for PAC contributions to let candidates take an additional $40,000 per election cycle (considered by Senate committee, did not advance).
  • SB 303 (Amedee): Would remove a requirement that the Ethics Board launches an investigation before filing charges for failure to file financial disclosure forms (passed both houses; sent to governor for signature).
  • SB 394 (Morrell): Would prohibit people who owe ethics fines of $250 or more from being appointed to any state or local board (passed both houses; sent to governor for signature).

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