Lee Zurik Investigation: Campaign cash buys Saints tickets, great grub

Published: May. 1, 2012 at 7:26 PM CDT|Updated: May. 1, 2014 at 3:57 PM CDT
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Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick did not run for re-election last year.  But he still spent close to $100,000 of campaign money.

Many of the charges came from restaurants: $665 at Gautreau's, $608 at Crescent City Steakhouse, $365 at Lilette, $330 at Clancy's, $1400 at Antoine's.  In 2011, Connick charged meals to his campaign 88 different times.

He also bought a $140 wedding gift at Adler's.  In late May, he bought three holiday gifts from Friend and Company worth $567.  And he bought a $2600 computer from Best Buy.

In 2010 -- another non-election year -- Connick spent $116,000.

"Campaign money should be spent to elect a person to office," says C.B. Forgotston, an attorney and government watchdog.

The State Ethics Board oversees the spending of campaign money.  But, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a staff of two audits all campaign finance reports.

"You cannot police this with two people," warns the MCC's managing director and president, Rafael Goyeneche.

Last summer, Goyeneche sent a letter to the Ethics Board, asking for a review of expenditures made by St. John Parish Sheriff Wayne Jones.

In 2010 -- a non-election year -- Jones spent $77,000 from his campaign war chest.  In 2009, he spent $84,000.

In those two years, Jones spent $3600 for hotel rooms in New Orleans, even though he lives in nearby St. John Parish.

In two years, Jones expensed $28,000 on meals and entertaining, spending some of that money at Bully's Halfway House and Matherne's Supermarket.

He also used campaign funds for a hotel room to attend the Laborde wedding in 2010.  And he spent $507 at Hooter's in Orange Beach.  The reason given -- once again, the sheriff had to attend a wedding.

"Those funds need to be used for a legitimate campaign purpose," says Goyeneche, "and not some disguised slush fund to be used for personal benefits for themselves, their family members."

Goyeneche wrote that letter to the Ethics Board almost 11 months ago; the board never responded.

Robert Travis Scott heads the Baton Rouge-based Public Affairs Research Council.  His group recently put together a report, asking lawmakers to tighten campaign finance laws.

"The legislature this session has decided that it will boldly go forward and study this," Scott says.  "Hopefully, they'll come around next year and they'll say, 'now that we've studied this we have no more excuse, let's actually address it and let's actually adopt something that makes Louisiana look better on this front."

The law says you can use funds as long as they relate to running your campaign, or running your elected office.

"What you have right now is a state law that is really fairly vague," Scott tells us.

And a vague law, with little oversight by the Ethics Board, could lead to abuse of the system.

"What I do hear people say a lot is, just let the contributors decide," says Scott.  "That's part of the problem with the system.  You may have contributors who are very happy to be giving contributions to someone that can be used for personal enrichment… What you want to do is avoid a system in which campaign contributions are just a gift in another form, a gift to enrich someone through material items or to enrich their lifestyle.  Let's try to find a way to keep that from happening."

Orleans Civil Court Judge Michael Bagneris has run unopposed since the 1990's.  But he still pays $650 a month from his campaign to lease an Infiniti -- to travel to and from work, he says -- and for other judicial-related business.

St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain ran unopposed last year.  But in 2010, he bought a $25,000 vehicle from Northpark Nissan.  His spokesperson says they sold that vehicle, a half-ton pick-up that was not large enough to pull a trailer.  The campaign bought a new one this year to haul material for the campaign and various events and fundraisers.  The vehicle stays at the sheriff's house.

In 2007, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard paid $15,000 of campaign money to a company called the Maxima Group.  Why does that raise questions?  The owner of the Maxima Group is Byron Lee, a parish councilman at the time of the payment.

And then we get to elected officials spending money on tickets.  Too many do it to name them all.  They buy tickets for the Saints, LSU, the Hornets and the Sugar Bowl.

"I don't see the legitimate purpose in it," says Goyeneche.  "The argument might be, well, it's good to be seen at these sporting events.  You know what?  If you want to be seen at those sporting events, you can go stand outside the stadium, and shake people's hands when they come walking up and when they come walking out of the game. You don't need to be in the game, using someone else's money to buy tickets that everyone has to pay [for] out of their own personal checkbook."

The campaign business is big business in Louisiana.  Last year, around $100 million was spent from campaign war chests.

"You can't legislate common sense," says Forgotston.  "Somebody has to have it."

Forgotston says, as long as lawmakers refuse to address campaign spending, many of them will continue to get away with spending campaign money -- regulated money -- on themselves.

"If anybody would like to argue that campaign funds are not abused, I would like to debate them," the watchdog says.

We asked several of the subjects of this report for their remarks.  Judge Bagneris said no comment, while D.A. Connick never responded to our request for a comment.

St. John Parish Sheriff Wayne Jones told us he has donated over $20,000 each year to St. John Parish schools, churches, and community groups.  He says, if the Ethics Board has any questions or concerns, he will be available.