The first person to benefit from economic development aid under Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration was Gary Chouest, owner of Edison Chouest Offshore and C-Logistics in Lafourche Parish. The announcement came last year during Jindal's second special session. During the governor's opening remarks, he identified a group of "real people," including Chouest, and asked them to stand.
The bayou mogul obliged and gave a nod to the new Republican governor. Chouest was a happy man that day, sporting a smile ear to ear. Who could blame him? After all, Jindal had just announced that the state was prepared to invest $10 million into the Port of Terrebonne to accommodate LaShip, an Edison Chouest subsidiary.
That's big bucks, even for a man like Chouest. Luckily for Jindal, Chouest believes in investing in politicians with whom he agrees. Over the past two years, Chouest's businesses and closest family members have given Jindal's campaign at least 18 donations totaling $85,000.
Did that money help Jindal make his decision to back the LaShip project? Kyle Plotkin, Jindal's press secretary, calls that a ridiculous notion. "Contributors to Gov. Jindal support his agenda for reforming Louisiana and moving our state forward, not the other way around," Plotkin says. "In fact, the governor has more than 21,000 contributors representing all different types of people and organizations."
Still, Jindal has made such an issue of his own ethical purity that when he does what other governors have routinely done — reward campaign contributors with state work or appointments — it raises eyebrows. And make no mistake: Jindal has used the power of his office to reward friends as much as any of his predecessors.
Based on a review of Jindal's 2007 and 2008 campaign finance reports and the state's vendor payment list for the current fiscal year alone, the governor's critics could easily claim that campaign contributions play a significant role in helping companies land state work and/or assistance. Since he took office in January 2008, the state has awarded tens of millions of dollars of work and incentives to various Jindal donors.
Just last month, Jindal traveled to Houma to show his support for Performance Energy Services, which is applying for aid from the state to expand its operations. During the past two years, the company has donated $10,000 to the governor's campaign. Jindal also grabbed headlines recently for attempting to find a buyer for the fledgling Pilgrim's Pride processing plant in north Louisiana, and he's now promoting the idea of using state money to help California-based Foster Farms make the purchase. That has to be comforting to Pilgrim's Pride, whose founder, Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim, gave Jindal's campaign $2,500 in 2007.
Similar instances abound.
Earlier this year, the governor and Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret attended the grand opening of Albemarle's Process Development Center in Baton Rouge. Jindal, at least in previous years, owned more than $100,000 in stock in Albemarle and received $5,000 in campaign contributions from the company. So far this fiscal year, Albemarle has received $670,000 in work from Louisiana Economic Development.
• Dallas Hixson of Alexandria donated $5,500 to Jindal's campaign. Hixson Autoplex has since picked up $595,000 in state vendor payments, including $29,000 in purchases from the executive department.
• Paul Dickson of Shreveport has contributed a total of $35,000 through various means, while his business, Morris and Dickson Company, got $17.2 million in state work, including a small portion from the executive department.
• Grace and Hebert Architects of Baton Rouge has contributed $10,000 within the past two years and received more than $2.7 million from Louisiana's treasury, mostly, again, from the executive branch.
Of course, just because a business donates money to the governor doesn't mean they're guaranteed action. Madhu Beriwal, owner of Innovative Emergency Management, donated $10,000 to Jindal's campaign through personal and business contributions, but her company recently lost out on a contract to run the new Road Home program — even though it was the low bidder. The contract instead went to Affiliated Computer Services of Texas, which had a winning bid of $31 million to run the hurricane recovery program. ACS, for its part, donated at least $4,000 to Jindal last year.
Then there's Colorado-based Louisiana Land Systems, which is trying to build a special landfill in Alsen, just outside of Baton Rouge. LLS executives collectively gave Jindal $50,000 in 2007, which grabbed headlines and prompted questions at the time. LLS' permit application is still under review two years later, says Tim Beckstrom, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Bob Mann, a top staffer for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, both Democrats, says understanding how corporate donations flow into campaigns can be complex. Without knowing what's going on behind the corporate veil or the political curtain, it's difficult to ascertain who's doing the asking. "There are certain types of businesses that are regulated, or need government help in some sort of way, that are going to be naturally inclined to be politically active," says Mann, now a mass communications professor at LSU. "Then there are those that aren't in your face, which means you have to go out and cultivate them if you want their donations."
If you're looking for an unapologetic, in-your-face archetype, look no further than Richard Zuschlag, CEO of Acadian Ambulance. Through personal donations, his business, his family and the Acadian Ambulance Employee Political Action Committee, he has provided Jindal with more than $26,000 in donations during the past two years. As for what the company has gotten from the state, the figure amounts to more than $923,000 during this fiscal year alone.
In an interview conducted last year for a previously published article, Zuschlag put it all on the table — one of his hallmarks — about how the game is played. "We've created an unofficial monopoly by going directly to government and telling them what we need and what ordinances need to be on the books," he says. "Local, state and federal politics are extremely important to us. We want to be close to those in power... And we do work hard to convince our employees to give to the company PAC."
Zuschlag isn't alone in this approach:
• William M. Hudson III of the Lafayette-based Oats and Hudson law firm donated $5,000 to Jindal's campaign. During this fiscal year, his firm received more than $845,000 in vendor payments from the state.
• Wink Inc., a New Orleans engineering firm, donated $2,000 to the governor in 2008 and is now sitting on current fiscal-year earnings of $3.8 million from Jindal's executive department.
These and other examples don't surprise Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political money on the federal level. Ritsch says such donations have practically become the "cost of doing business." He adds that peeling back the layers of bureaucracy by examining donations to public officials and investigating how they impact policy can help reverse that trend, but stopping it won't be easy. "Citizens rightfully expect that government can't be bought, but money is a factor in policy decisions and that can result in government waste, inefficiency, incompetence and even corruption," Ritsch says.
Meanwhile, the Center for the Study of Responsive Law placed Louisiana at or near the bottom in terms of providing state contracting information online. The center praised the Jindal administration's new "Louisiana Transparency and Accountability" (LA TRAC) Web site (www.latrac.la.gov) for giving taxpayers a peek at the state's budget as well as the names of state contractors and the amount of each contract. The center noted, however, that LA TRAC "should provide the full text of the contract online."
In the end, it's up to people like Jindal to push for change. But for those making the contributions, it's all about good business — not good government. "It makes sense to them to donate money," Ritsch says, "especially when you consider that the donation is a usually a drop in the bucket to what they can get in return."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.