Lee Zurik Investigation: Lawmakers pocketing your tax dollars by double billing

From top left: Rep. Herbert Dixon, Sen. Joseph Lopinto, Sen. Bret Allain, Rep. Patrick Williams, Sen. Rick Gallot, Sen. Rick Ward.
From top left: Rep. Herbert Dixon, Sen. Joseph Lopinto, Sen. Bret Allain, Rep. Patrick Williams, Sen. Rick Gallot, Sen. Rick Ward.

Six lawmakers likely owe taxpayers money., following findings from our "Louisiana Purchased" investigation. And some have already written checks to return cash that they never should have collected. It's the latest report in a joint investigation of campaign finance by FOX 8 News and Manuel Torres of NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

"That should get people riled up," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak of our findings.

For most taxpayers, it's a simple concept.

"You can't be reimbursed twice for the same expense," says former legislative attorney C.B. Fogotston. "I don't care what kind of office you have."

But that hasn't stopped some lawmakers from dipping into two pots of money at the same time, for the same expense.

"That's the Louisiana way," Chervenak tells us.

Some lawmakers have admitted fault. One has simply ignored our questions.

"You get a sense that they just may be underestimating the ability to find out this kind of information," notes Chervenak, "and underestimating your enthusiasm for finding this information."

Lawmakers pay for expenses out of two pots of money: their campaign account, funded by contributors, and legislative expense accounts, funded by taxpayers. We've found lawmakers paying expenses through their campaign, then seeking reimbursement for those same expenses from taxpayers. It's essentially double dipping - trying to claim payment for the same bill twice.

"What they've done is, they've gotten really careless," says Forgotston.

Herbert Dixon is a state representative from Alexandria. His campaign shows a payment to the Hyatt Hotel in Chicago in August 2012: total cost, $792.

And House records show Dixon was reimbursed by taxpayers for that same expense.

We found a similar story for hotels in Providence, R.I. and Philadelphia. And in one instance, Dixon paid $67 out of his campaign account for airport parking, then sought House reimbursement for the same bill.

Dixon thanked us for "bringing this matter to his attention." He wrote the House a reimbursement check $2304.29.

"Whether he intentionally did it, we don't know," notes Forgotston. "But we know that at least he did the right thing in that particular case by reimbursing the House."

Jefferson Parish Representative Joseph Lopinto used campaign money to pay for a Hilton Hotel stay in Washington, D.C. And Lopinto was reimbursed by the House for much of that same bill.

He told us by email it was "an error" on his "part," and he would "take care of it immediately."

Senator Bret Allain from Franklin thanked us for "calling this matter to" his "attention." We found 10 instances of double billing - all totaled, $1,600 of expenses paid by his campaign, also being reimbursed by taxpayers.

Allain's double billings included purchases with Office Depot, Walmart, AT&T and Cox. Allain told us, "The error has been corrected by repayment to the Senate."

But some of these lawmakers were not as responsive.

Shreveport Representative Patrick Williams used campaign money to pay for a Hilton Hotel stay in Washington - it cost $912. But House records show a receipt for that same Hilton - the total bill, same amount of money, $912. The House staff subtracted one charge for room service – still, Williams was reimbursed $838 for a bill he already had paid for from his campaign account.

After receiving our inquiry, the Rep. Williams left us a message: He wasn't sure exactly what we were asking. So we emailed him again, twice, making it clearer and telling him he essentially double dipped. We never heard back.

Senator Rick Gallot of Ruston has almost $3,200 in charges that appear on his campaign finance reports, and in Senate records for reimbursements. That includes a $1,600 payment from his campaign to the Southwestern Louisiana Chamber for a trade mission to the Republic of Panama.

Senate documents show taxpayers reimbursed him $1,600 for the same expense.

Gallot's campaign also paid for his hotel on that trip, at the Sheraton - $882. Again, the Senate reimbursed Gallot $882 for his room at the Sheraton.

Gallot told us by email, "The campaign fund was reimbursed following the trip."

What he's saying is this: His campaign paid the bill, he asked taxpayers for a reimbursement, and instead of keeping that money he refunded his campaign the money. That would make this scenario legal.

But we emailed Gallot back, attaching his campaign finance report and telling him we didn't see any record of his reimbursing his campaign for that expense.

Gallot never responded.

"You can be forgetful once," Forgotston remarks. "But, I don't know about y'all - I try not to make the same mistake twice."

We never got any response from Senator Rick Ward, from Port Allen.

We have questions about $4595.39 in charges that appear in both campaign and Senate records.

Two times, Ward bought postage with campaign money. And in Senate records, we found postage reimbursements, with the date and amount an exact match to the campaign purchase.

In 2012, Ward's campaign bought an executive chair and two guest chairs. Senate records show a receipt in the same amount, $2081.87 for an executive chair and two guest chairs. We didn't find that amount of money ever being reimbursed to Ward's campaign account.

"That's my money, that's your money, and they're basically taking it and they're just putting in their pocket," says Chervenak. "And they're abusing taxpayers so they can have extra pocket money."

Last week, we showed you two other lawmakers paying for expenses through their campaigns and getting reimbursed for that same expense with taxpayer dollars. Baton Rouge Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb had questionable cell phone and Office Depot bills totaling more than $18,000. And Senate President John Alario had his campaign pay for a stay in a Hilton Hotel, an expense for which the Senate also reimbursed him. Alario has told us he would reimburse taxpayers.

All totaled, we've now shown you eight lawmakers who dipped into two pots of money to basically pay the same bill.

Chervenak thinks it's reflective of the culture in Baton Rouge. "If you see it across a number of individuals and across a number of activities, then you've really got to question whether this is systemic or not," he says. "It seems to be relatively systemic, that this isn't just a mistake here and a mistake there, that this is how the system operates here in Louisiana. And it's unfortunate."


UPDATE - Late Thursday night, shortly after this report was first broadcast, Sen. Rick Ward sent this email response to NOLA.com:

I am just reading your story. If you sent me a letter I apologize for not responding. I don't remember ever receiving same. I would like to thank you for finding these accounting mistakes. I am not clear exactly as to what took place to cause the inaccuracies but I will be sure they are corrected and that any reimbursement that is do to the state or my campaign account is paid immediately.

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