Zurik: From Tahoes to vote brokers, campaign funds go a long way in Louisiana

Zurik: From Tahoes to vote brokers, campaign funds go a long way in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - "You just can't make this stuff up," says political analyst Elliott Stonecipher as we detail for him a real transaction, made by a real, longtime politician. It's something we found in our latest review of campaign expenditures for our  "Louisiana Purchased" probe with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

"You know, in life, timing is everything," says Ed Chervenak, a political scientist teaching at UNO.

February 20, 2014, Representative Gregory Miller of Norco files a bill that would prevent campaign funds to be used to purchase a vehicle. April 29, that bill passes the La. House of Representatives. May 21, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reports the bill favorably - a sign it's about to become law.

One day later, May 22, Senator Francis Thompson from Richland Parish goes to a Chevrolet dealership and purchases a new campaign vehicle. The price tag: $47,701.50.

Five days later, May 27, the bill goes to the full Senate and passes. Thompson wasn't there for the vote. It became law August 1.

"That certainly calls into question his integrity and his character," Chervenak says. "'Well, I'm going to do it before it becomes illegal,' and basically take advantage of this campaign finance account."

So just before he would be prevented by law from buying a car with campaign funds, Thompson purchased this Chevy Tahoe - the most expensive car we've found ever purchased with Louisiana campaign money.

"Certainly, you know, a lot of people are going to look at that and shake their heads and say, 'You know, this just isn't right, something's not right here,' Chervenak tells us.

Thompson told us by email that the Tahoe replaced "an aging vehicle with over 200,000 miles on it. The purchase was made in accordance with state law."

That is true. About two months after the purchase, it would have been illegal.

Some lawmakers lease cars and pay for it out of their campaign funds. Senator Greg Tarver of Shreveport uses a Mercedes Benz as his campaign vehicle, and sometimes pays the $1,100 monthly note out of his campaign account.

"I wish I could say I'm surprised," Stonecipher says. "No one up here will be surprised to know that Greg Tarver is spending over a thousand dollars a month in campaign finance money to lease himself a Mercedes Benz. How in the world he would explain that, I don't have a clue."

Tarver told us by email his campaign paid "5" of the "24" months of the car lease.

FOX 8 News and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune analyzed campaign spending by public officials in 2014. It's information the politicians and their election competitors all must report to the State Board of Ethics.

On December 11 of last year, Representative Herbert Dixon resigned. A newspaper article uses a quote directly from Dixon: "This officially ends political office for Herbert Dixon." The article says the resignation was "effective immediately."

The law allows campaign money to be spent on current or future races, or their current political office. So if Dixon decided not to run for office again and left his elected job, the only thing he can legally do is donate his remaining campaign money to a non profit, or give it back to contributors.

Instead, 12 days after ending his political career, Dixon used campaign funds to buy an 80 dollar meal in the final days of 2014, then bought three more meals and some supplies.

"Seems like it's a real stretch, here," Chervenak notes. "He's a private citizen, spending money out of a campaign finance account. That doesn't sound right at all. There's something wrong there."

Dee Stanley is the City of Lafayette's chief administrative officer. That's an appointed job. In January 2015, he announced a run for parish president. But four months earlier, Stanley used money from his campaign account at the Westin Galleria in Houston - lodging for an LSU game, the Tigers' season opener against Wisconsin.

"How is that related to his campaign?" Chervenak wonders. "How is that even legal?"

Troy Hebert is Governor Jindal's commissioner for alcohol and tobacco control. His last political office, state senator, was in 2010. But last year, Hebert spent $700 out of his remaining campaign funds with the LSU Athletics Fund.

Many current elected officials also have some questionable charges. Jefferson Parish School Board member Etta Licciardi had 83 business meetings at restaurants, roughly once every four days. They included $205 at Drago's, $183 at Outback, $98 at Mondo. Licciardi. told us she had no offices for holding business meetings, so she often met over lunch.

Another school board member, Ray St. Pierre, paid $2,800 in dues to Timberline Country Club. St. Pierre told us, "It is a continuous campaign situation to associate with different people in my community in order to get me reelected to the school board."

Vermillion Parish Sheriff Michael Couvillon paid $1,300 for "electricity" at his "camp." Sheriff Mike Couvillon of Vermilion Parish sent us a statement, saying simply that he "uses this facility to conduct fund raising activities for his campaign."

And Lake Charles District Attorney John DeRosier bought a $4,500 barbecue pit for campaign functions.

"These individuals are nothing if not creative," Chervenak says.

DeRosier told us he bought that pit for the sole purpose of providing food at campaign events, noting that he saves a lot of money in catering expenses.

Former St. Tammany Parish DA Walter Reed spent $83,723.74 with the law firm Haley McNamara. Attorney Rick Simmons works at that law firm; Simmons is handling Reed's federal criminal case.

"I'm sure he's going to be paying a lot of money for lawyers," Chervenak says.

And candidates paid $1 million for endorsements and ballots.

"I call those vote brokers," Stonecipher tells us.

You've likely gotten those election fliers before, candidates being endorsed by political organizations. Many of them charge the candidates money - in one case, $20,000. Many of these organizations are run by elected officials.

"It is about as rotten a sanctioned kind of behavior as anything I can think of," Stonecipher says.

"I'm surprised candidates are still giving them money," Chervenak tells us.

The most raised appears to be the New Orleans-based Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD, which raised about $150,000 last year, charging candidates to appear as an endorsement on their ballots.

A BOLD spokesperson told us, "We are one of the oldest organizations of its type in the New Orleans area that has managed to remain successful and relevant advocating for candidates and issues we endorse in the community at large. It is important to note that no candidate gives us money for an endorsement. Candidates give us money after they are endorsed to help advertise their name and platforms through visual and print media."

"It is deeply, deeply distasteful, unethical and wrong," says Stonecipher, "because it enriches elected officials who simply get these huge amounts of money to do phone banks, transportation, sample ballots."

All totaled, candidates for political office in Louisiana spent at least $55,901,042.58 in 2014. Much of the money, contributed to the candidates by supporters, political parties and PAC's, was spent on TV commercials consultants, fliers and other campaign materials.

But two political analysts say some officials crossed the line in their spending practices.

Stonecipher comments on a general lack of ethics enforcement in the state. "When there is no downside risk for this kind of behavior, they don't think about it," he says. "They don't worry about it."

He notes that local DA's, even the Ethics Board itself, have shied away from going after questionable campaign spending, which to some elected officials is a sign that much of what they spend can go unchecked.

"It doesn't matter what the speed limit is or how many speed limit signs there are, or how easy they are to see," Stonecipher says. "If there is no state police or local police or sheriff's department, it doesn't matter what the speed limit is. You drive 120 if you want to, because there's no enforcement. That's what this is about."

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