Lee Zurik Investigation: School board leader spending freely, despite ethics fine
$202 at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. $50 at Parkway Bakery. Purchases at Chevron, AutoZone, Walgreens and Home Depot. And all those purchases may be against the law.
Thomas Robichaux is the president of the Orleans Parish School Board. He's running for re-election, but according to the Louisiana Board of Ethics he can't spend any campaign money. That hasn't stopped him.
"They know they can get away with it," says political watchdog C.B. Forgotston.
This story dates back to 2010, when Robichaux ran for state representative. He still hasn't filed two campaign finance documents from that election, more than two years later. We don't know who gave him money or where he spent it. So the Ethics Board fined him, but he hasn't paid it yet, and until he does the Ethics Board says the law is clear -- Robichaux cannot spend anymore campaign money until the fine is cleared up.
"What would happen to you or me if we got fined for something?" wonders Forgotston. "We would have somebody knocking on our door if we owe money to the state."
This month, Robichaux filed campaign finance documents for the upcoming school board race and it showed he had $10,000 worth of expenditures: $6300 for campaign consultants, $1000 for a campaign coordinator money for someone to canvas, campaign lunches, dinners and even a generator -- all were purchased with campaign money.
"The black letter of the campaign finance laws are pretty clear on this point," says Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University. "You simply cannot make expenditures of campaign funds if you are not up to date with your reporting."
Back in August, when we interviewed Robichaux for our first story on his outstanding fine, we told him the Ethics Board said he couldn't spent anymore money until the fine was settled. And last month, when we asked in a follow-up interview whether he'd been spending campaign money over the last couple of months, he gave us this response: "I was spending some money at the beginning, then I got a letter and it said, 'please don't,' so I haven't been spending money the last couple of weeks."
But in a statement Tuesday, Robichaux told us this: "The Ethics Commission has not ordered me not to spend. The staff has merely pointed out the existence of a statute which any first year law student can tell is clearly unconstitutional on its face. If the Ethics Commission cites me, I will appeal."
"The Ethics Board is charged with enforcing the law as written," says Ciolino. "If the law is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment, some court would have to make that determination."
Back in August, Robichaux told us he's spent six months trying to recreate those lost campaign records. Again, he still hasn't filed them.
"These races take a lot out of you," Robichaux told us at the time. "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."
Right now he's focusing on his school board election, spending money out of his campaign warchest in a way that the Ethics Board says may be against the law.
Earlier this month, the Ethics Board issued an advisory opinion, writing, "…the board concluded and instructed me to inform you that the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act will prohibit you from making expenditures with your campaign funds as long as you owe fines under the campaign finance disclosure act."
In response to Robichaux's statement, the Ethics Board sent us this:
We disagree with Mr. Robichaux's assessment of the advisory opinion. The board provided him with relevant advice in response to his question. If Mr. Robichaux wishes to challenge the constitutionality of a statute there are ways for him to do that. But not through the board of ethics. The statue does not impose an expenditure ban. It provides Mr. Robichaux must pay his late fees, fines, and penalties before making other expenditures.