BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - We approached Rep. Frank Howard in the chamber of the Louisiana House of Representatives last Thursday, May 15. We introduced ourselves and reminded him about the emails we'd previously sent.
The lawmaker, a former sheriff, wanted us to take a walk off the floor of the House to discuss the matter.
We went looking for him in at the Capitol in Baton Rouge after he sent us a statement, calling the facts in our investigation of his campaign spending "erroneous."
We found 17 instances where Rep. Howard charged something to his campaign account and, for that same expense, also received a reimbursement from the House – in other words, from taxpayers.
Howard's campaign noted a $176.88 payment on January 31, 2011 at the U.S. Postal Service. The House reimbursed Howard $176 for stamps bought at the U.S. Postal Service. The date on the receipt for reimbursement was January 31, 2011 - same date and amount as his campaign expenditure.
We saw another example from 2013, when his campaign paid $101.25 for a room at the Black Bear Stay and Play in Delhi, La. House records show a reimbursement of $101 at the Black Bear Stay and Play.
We emailed Howard last month and asked him to provide us with any records that might explain why this wasn't taxpayers writing him a check for a bill that his campaign already had paid.
"I'm not sure what documents he can provide that shows that he is not double dipping," notes UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak. "I mean, what can he really say?"
Howard did reply, writing, "I am very careful to separate my campaign expenses for those I submit to the house for reimbursement. Your assumptions that charges which appear on my campaign report and those I received reimbursement for, are the same charges, is erroneous."
We sent him another message, asking for records to back up his statement. He never replied. So we went to the Capitol.
"It's an error on my part," Howard acknowledged in our face-to-face meeting.
He showed us a copy of a reimbursement check he's been keeping in his wallet for a few weeks - a $1,700 check.
"It was an error on my part," Howard repeated. "I take full ownership of it. It's a mistake made, a lesson learned – it won't happen again."
Howard represents parts of three parishes near Alexandria; his office is in the town of Many. In the past four years, House records show he's been reimbursed $13,253 for mileage. At the same time, his campaign has spent $18,974.21 on gas. All totaled, that's $32,227.21 in gas and car travel.
In many instances, Howard received a reimbursement from the House for driving on the same day he bought gas through his campaign. For instance, the House reimbursed Howard for mileage on October 13, 2011 - he gave a speech in Natchitoches that day. On the same day, though, his campaign paid for gas in Natchitoches.
"My district is 2,300 sq. miles within, 500 miles around it," Howard told us. "So it makes a difference. I travel 42… about 40 miles a day to work."
Howard admitted he might be reimbursing even more money, after he reviews all of his gas expenses.
Howard wasn't the only lawmaker we wanted to see in Baton Rouge. We also introduced ourselves to Joe Harrison, a state representative representing Terrebonne and three neighboring parishes.
"We sent you a note a month ago never heard back," we reminded him, referring to our inquiry about gas expenses.
"I don't even remember seeing anything on that," he replied. We showed him the read receipt for the email we sent, as well as a letter sent through regular mail.
Representative Harrison's office is in the town of Gray. As with Howard, we found two instances where Harrison appeared to have double dipped. Like every other lawmaker in our "Louisiana Purchased" investigation of campaign finance issues, we sent Harrison a letter and an email. He was the only one of the lawmakers we sent inquiries who did not respond at all.
"I can't say that it was important on my list," Harrison told us. In other words, Harrison said it wasn't important to respond to our questions about double dipping.
For example, Harrison charged a $158.95 expense at Office Depot to his campaign. And in House records, there's a reimbursement for an Office Depot charge. The reimbursement receipt is from the same day and confirms the same amount as that campaign charge.
"Well, I'm going to talk with my CPA about it," Harrison told us when we raised the issue with him in person. "That's why I hired him, so I'd stay out of trouble."
But what really stuck out to us was the fuel costs Harrison has paid. In four years, the House (with taxpayer funding) reimbursed Harrison $24,892.86 for mileage. During that same time period, he paid $25,746.70 for gas out of his campaign account.
All totaled, that's about $50,000 for mileage and gas for a single lawmaker. And remember - his job is part-time.
When we remarked that that seems like a lot of gas, he laughed at us and said, "You travel with me and tell me how much travel I do. I'm very active… You can look at the vehicles. I change vehicles at least every two years because they always get close to a hundred-thousand miles."
When we ask him directly if he really drives 50,000 miles a year, he told us, "Oh, easy." He told us most of that mileage was driven for his legislative work. In four years, he claims to have spent $50,000 on gas and mileage.
"Let's figure that out by the month," suggests former legislative attorney C.B. Forgotston. "That's about $12,000 a year, so he's spending $1,000 a month on gasoline... He may live way down in the bayou! And we don't require them to drive Priuses - he may be driving a Mac truck."
We did a little more math, and we took a look at Harrison's House district.
Most of Harrison's constituents live in the northern part of his House district, around such population centers as Morgan City and Dulac. So, we reasoned, if he drove from his office in Gray, down to Dulac, over to Morgan City, to Labadieville and finally back to his office in Gray, all in the same day, he'd drive about 123 miles.
To total up to 50,000 miles in one year, Harrison would have to make that drive 406 times - that's 406 times in 365 days.
By comparison, Dee Richard is another state representative from that area - part of his district touches Harrison's. House records show Richard didn't seek any mileage reimbursement from taxpayers over the past four years. Campaign records show Richard didn't spend a penny of that money on gas, either. So it's zero dollars of spending for Richard compared to more than $50,000 for Harrison.
We want to know if Harrison is double dipping his fuel - paying for gas out of his campaign, but also charging taxpayers for mileage. We found several examples, including an August 10, 2011 instance in which taxpayers paid for mileage for a Harrison trip to Houma, on the same day his campaign noted a charge for gas - in Houma.
"The only way you can describe that is 'abusive,'" says Chervenak. "That's just outright abuse - taking from the taxpayers, and taking money from your campaign contributors."
Harrison told us at the Capitol last Thursday that he'd check back with us about our questions. "I'll answer it, soon as I get a chance to," he said.
Six days later, we have received no explanation, no further response from a lawmaker who may be claiming expenses out of two pots of money - one that belongs to his campaign, the other to taxpayers.
"It's just so blatant," Chervenak says. "It just shows that they really don't care. They just don't care about taking money from taxpayers and taking money from their campaign contributors... Seems like there's just a sense of entitlement, that 'Oh, I can do this, so I'll do it."
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