Lee Zurik Investigation: Politicians owe the state thousands in fines

Published: Aug. 18, 2012 at 2:34 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 20, 2012 at 4:22 PM CDT
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C.B. Forgotston is not shy about criticizing politicians.

"They know they can get away with it," Forgotston says.  "It's just deceiving to the public."

The government watchdog is talking about the politicians on a list that we've obtained from the State Ethics Board – and he says they deserve to be blasted.

The board monitors campaign contributions and spending.  It requires candidates and elected officials to file paperwork with the state every year -- if they're late or don't file it, they face a fine.  But we learned that many haven't paid up.

On Wednesday, Thomas Robichaux qualified to retain his seat on the Orleans School Board, even though the State Ethics Board fined him $6,000 for not filing two campaign finance reports in 2010, for a state house race that he lost.

"It's an honest error," says Robichaux.  "After I ran for the House District 93 race, right after the election we closed down the office.  All of the records of the checks and receipts for everything that was paid were accidentally thrown away by somebody.  So I was unable to file any reports."

Robichaux has a hearing scheduled for September.  Until then, the Ethics Board says he can't spend any campaign money, but can run for office.  Nolan Marshall Jr. has qualified to run against Robichaux for the School Board seat.

"I should have gotten to it a lot sooner," Robichaux said when we asked why it took two years to deal with the fine.  "These races take a lot out of you.  After this race was over, I spent all my time and all my energies getting my life back in order.  Work on my practice… and my family, focus on myself, and all the work we do on the school board, because I remained a full-time school board member the whole time.  And we do so much hard work on the school board that it just kind of fell by the wayside.  And it should not have, but it did."

Forgotston calls the ethics rules weak.  "If we wanted to have a real campaign disclosure law, and not a watered-down one like Bobby Jindal has given them, I'd just say flat out -- if you owe any money, not only just to the Ethics Board, but if you owe any money to any agency of the state, you can't run for public office."

But that's not the law.  So Seth Bloom also qualified for the Orleans School Board election.  He will run unopposed, even though he hasn't paid a $60 fine from 2008.  Bloom told us he wasn't aware of the fine, but paid it after our email.

Forgotston says the law allows a long list of current and past elected officials' fines to go unpaid.

State Representative Sherman Mack owes $360 to the Ethics Board, a fine for a late filing in 2011.  Plaquemines Parish Councilman P.V. Griffin has a $40 fine from 2010.  Jefferson Parish School Board member Pat Tovrea has $8220 in unpaid fines from 2010.  All remain in office.

Some former elected officials also have outstanding fines.  Former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro owes $420.  Taffaro told us his campaign was supposed to pay the fine; he paid it himself on Friday.

The Ethics Board says former Orleans School Board member Jimmy Fahrentholtz has $45,440 in outstanding fines.

Former Orleans Assessor Betty Jefferson pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.  She owes $600.  And former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price currently owes $400 while he serves time in federal prison.

Tens of thousands of dollars of money, owed to the state -- owed to you, the taxpayer -- unpaid.

We tried to contact all the subjects of this report.  Many did not respond.  In addition to being late on fines, being late on a campaign filing often means the public and opponents are unable to see who contributed to a campaign during an election.