Lee Zurik Investigation: “Some people's voice counts more than others” in La. politics

Published: Nov. 20, 2013 at 11:18 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2013 at 4:41 PM CST
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Campaign finance laws are filled with loopholes.

"Legislators write the rules that regulate themselves," notes political analyst Ed Chervenak. "They tend to write rules to their advantage, to their favor."

During the Blanco administration, the legislature wrote a law that prevented them from receiving campaign contributions during legislative sessions. But that hasn't stopped the money flowing during the session, through what some consider a loophole in the law.

Both the Democrats and Republicans have campaign committees organized by lawmakers. The Democrats have the House Campaign Committee and the Senate Campaign Committee, both overseen by legislators. Representative John Bel Edwards is the current chair of the House committee; Senator Eric LaFleur chairs the Senate committee.

While their individual campaigns couldn't receive any money during sessions, their committees could and did, receiving a total of 194 contributions during the 2011 session, totaling $222,000. In 2012, 204 contributions totaled $282,000.

In the months following the 2011 session, the campaign committees used some of their money to spend on political campaigns. In fact, Eric LaFleur, the Senate committee's chair, used his party committee money on his personal campaign – he more than $25,000 to his own account to cover research, production and postage costs.

The GOP has a Republican Legislative Delegation Campaign Committee. During the 2012 legislative session, that committee, made up of lawmakers raised nearly $343,000.

As FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune researched campaign finance the past four months, one thing that jumped out was the power of the political parties in this state. Every person, company or organization has limits on the amount of money they can give to a candidate – but the parties do not.

So the Republican Party gave over $200,000 to Holly Boffy, who ran for the state's school board; she won. The Democratic Party directed $96,000 to La. Senate candidate Lydia Jackson; she lost.

"They should not be unlimited," says former Governor Buddy Roemer of the political parties.

Roemer pioneered campaign finance reform in our state. More than 20 years ago, legislation he pushed placed limits on the amount individuals and corporations could donate.

"The bulk of the giving in America is from special interests," Roemer says, rubbing his fingers together to make the point. "This is what they give."

Roemer wants to limit the amount of money political parties can give, and also tighten the laws on contributions from special interests. "I would not allow lobbyists to give a check to a politician," he tells us.

Our series of stories shows the power of bundling: one person or interest gathering multiple donations and directing them all to one candidate. We showed how, in one day, Alexandria businessman Bryan Bossier helped give Governor Jindal $95,000 through different family members, a business partner and 11 different corporations.

Roemer says that needs to stop. "If you don't limit corporations but you have each corporation at a $5,000 limit, what's to keep you from having 20 corporations?" he asks.

Roemer would forbid corporations from giving money. 21 other states, including Texas, bar companies from contributing.

Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans, says the current system allows large donors to have a larger voice.

"Democracy is supposed to be about this principle of political equality - everyone has an equal voice," he says. "But those who have the money have more of a voice than those who don't. So some people's voice counts more than others."

Candidates will tell you, elections are expensive.

"It's not cheap, it's not free," Roemer reminds us. "Money is important to politics."

Trying to further limit campaign contributions raises questions about freedom of speech. That said, most political followers we interviewed for this series agreed on one thing - ethics enforcement is essential to the process.

Our series shows a handful of legislators breaking campaign finance laws, taking too much money from political action committees (PAC's). Officials at the state's Ethics Administration Program tell us they don't have the staff, or the directive from the Ethics Board itself, to randomly audit reports as we did.

"I cannot buy the excuse that they just don't have enough personnel and they just don't have enough time," says Robert Travis Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. "We have to fix that if that's the case."

Governor Jindal pushed and passed legislation he called the gold standard of ethics. However, many observers think the state lacks a gold standard of ethics enforcement.

"Is this system created just to bog down the ethics board in minutiae, so they can't take on any of the really big issues?" asks Scott. "They can't take on some of the big infractions? Is that what this is all about? That's one of the reasons that people lose confidence in the ethics board, it's for this very reason."

If anything changes, it would have to start in next year's legislative session. That would include giving clarity to campaign expenditure laws that, right now, allow elected officials to spend tens of thousands of dollars on football tickets, meals and, in the case of one former elected official, graduation gifts for relatives.

LSU professor Bob Mann says most elected officials are honest.

"Most of these elected officials aren't out shaking down lobbyists," Mann says. "Some are, but most aren't. So I don't want to paint the entire legislature and every elected official in the state as a bunch of greedy people who are shaking down lobbyists and accepting bribes to do their job."

But the laws in place right now give people enough wiggle room to manipulate the system.

"We shouldn't just have this trust that we're just going to hope that we elect honest people and that they do the right thing," Mann says. "I think we should have laws that do govern the worst behavior and try to prevent it, and punish it when it occurs."