Louisiana Purchased Educational Supplement: Investigative Highlights

When the investigators at WVUE/FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune began our "Louisiana Purchased" project, we hoped to produce the most comprehensive investigation into the state's campaign financing in history. We wanted to use our collective resources to pull back the curtain on a complicated system hidden within millions of pieces of data.  "Louisiana Purchased" exposed illegal activities, questionable practices and weak ethics enforcement.   

Perhaps the most important finding occurred early on. Over the course of four years (2009-2012), almost $204 million poured into the campaigns of Louisiana's state and local candidates. The source of that money was the eye-opening part: One-third of the $204 million donated was financed by less than one percent of the donors (0.3 percent, to be exact). Those donors made up an elite "Top 400" of campaign contributors.

The findings of "Louisiana Purchased" were presented in nine reports which appeared on television, online, and in the newspaper. Here are the highlights and links to the stories themselves:

The gatekeepers of Louisiana politics: Once we determined our "Top 400" list, we got a good look at the inner workings of what some observers call a "pay-to-play" system. Our researchers combed through hundreds of thousands of records to uncover the process of "bundling."  This technique involves corporations, business partners and family members bundling their donations to get around individual limits. For example, in a single day, a Louisiana businessman pulled together $95,000 worth of $5,000 contributions to Gov. Bobby Jindal's gubernatorial campaign.

The governor's appointees: A further look into donations to Governor Bobby Jindal's campaign revealed that many high-dollar contributors were appointed to powerful state boards. And in many cases, those contributors and others were associated with companies that got lucrative state economic development grants.

Are nursing homes buying state policy?: The governor wasn't the only beneficiary of bundling.  An in-depth story on the state's nursing home industry showed that it's a powerful political player.  One example discovered was $206,000 in donations from various nursing home owners in one day to one politician.  Critics say such targeted donations are really just efforts to buy favorable legislation, such as a law that sent millions in state dollars to nursing homes for empty beds.

Powerful lawmakers caught over the limits: While many of the questionable practices we uncovered fall within legal limits, the investigative team found more than a few politicians who violated campaign finance laws.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars in over-the-limit contributions were found.  After we notified them, many of the politicians immediately returned the money to campaign contributors.

Political war chests hold plenty of perks: We also uncovered a laundry list of perks funded by politicians' hefty campaign war chests.  One lawmaker was found to have charged more than $20,000 on meals; another bought more than $60,000 on tickets to sporting events and plays.

Are utilities the real 'power' behind utility board?: The state's public utility board was the focus of another part of the series.  Research uncovered potential conflicts of interest related to hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to board members from the same utilities they regulate. During interviews, we were able to get one board member to reveal that he had been approached about a campaign contribution in exchange for a vote.

Big donors get big contracts in JP: We brought the investigation down to the local level and looked at glaring disparities in Jefferson Parish, where high-dollar donors appeared to be the overwhelming favorite to get no-bid contracts.

Campaign finance legal loopholes: We looked at what hurdles prevent any change in the system, and whether lawmakers benefiting from the current laws would ever derail the money train. We also examined how other states regulate and limit campaign finance.

Toothless ethics enforcement: Finally we highlighted the fact that the lawmakers allocating funding for ethics enforcement also came under the ethics board's jurisdiction. Right now, the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program has just two people reviewing campaign records. And its online campaign contribution database can be difficult for many people to use.  State Treasurer John Kennedy says he is working to get more money to the ethics board by beefing up collections on outstanding fines and directing those funds to the board.