Last in a four-part series on the campaign finances of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
If you really want to understand Louisiana politics, right down to its ugly core where civics is sometimes no more than an excuse to play the game, heed the mantra of The Washington Post's "Deep Throat": Follow the money. You'll understand then why some candidates make the decisions they make, and you'll see where their interests — and their ethics — reside.
In the process, you may be surprised to learn how much loot is actually involved in the political process. Campaigns are a major economic engine, despite many people's reluctance to see it that way.
During Louisiana's most recent two-year election cycle, when major state elections coincided with those on the federal level, more than $127 million changed hands between donors and politicians. Last year, when heated contests for president and the U.S. Senate topped local ballots, Louisiana residents contributed more than $32 million to candidates for national office, according to the Federal Election Commission. Additionally, 430 candidates gunning for statewide and legislative offices in 2007 raised some $95 million, based on an analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a Montana-based nonprofit.
Although the politicians who raise and spend all that cash manage billions of taxpayer dollars, campaign finance in Louisiana is still not regulated to the extent that other money-related public functions are monitored and overseen. In an effort to show instances where donor-given campaign cash intersects with public dollars extracted from taxpayers, Gambit spent the last three months reviewing the 2007 and 2008 campaign finance records of Gov. Bobby Jindal. The resulting four-part series exposed several areas of concern — and presented some possible solutions. They include:
Concern: Since taking office in January 2008, Jindal has appointed at least 200 campaign contributors to the state's most influential boards and commissions. In all, those donors gave Jindal more than $750,000 during 2007 and 2008.
Solution: Require all campaign finance reports be filed quarterly, rather than annually, and force politicians to disclose any campaign contributors they appoint to a board or commission.
Rep. Neil Abramson has filed a bill that would make Jindal and all other office holders disclose all appointees who contributed at least $1,000 to their campaigns. Abramson passed a similar bill last year that Jindal promised to work on with the New Orleans Democrat, but the governor had a change of heart and vetoed the measure after lawmakers adjourned.
When push came to shove this year, Jimmy Faircloth, Jindal's executive counsel, persuaded a House committee last week to put the bill on hold because the administration doesn't support the measure. "Not as drafted, no," Faircloth told the committee.
Unlike the database compiled by Gambit, Abramson wants elected officials like Jindal to also include any cabinet-level appointees that donated cash to the governor. Such a list might show that Lane Carson of Covington donated $5,000 to Jindal before being selected as secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. Tim Barfield, director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, is another longtime Jindal contributor. As for quarterly reports, they would allow the public to better track money coming into Jindal's campaigns and how those dollars might impact policy decisions being made at the same time. Perhaps a quarterly report would have revealed the proximity of a $5,000 donation last year from Pat Manual of Eunice — and Jindal's interim appointment of Manuel to the Public Service Commission, which occurred during the same annual reporting period.
The public might also know if Jindal's fundraising trip to California last month netted any money from anyone having anything to do with Foster Farms, which is based in California and is currently in negotiations with the state to buy a poultry plant in north Louisiana — with $50 million in taxpayer dollars, thanks to the Jindal administration.
Concern: The state has awarded tens of millions of dollars of work and incentives to various Jindal donors. In fact, among the first individuals to receive economic development assistance from the Jindal Administration was Gary Chouest, owner of Edison Chouest Offshore and the singular connection to at least 18 Jindal donations totaling $85,000.
Solution: When they make political contributions, donors should have to disclose their employers or companies they own.
Individual donors are prohibited from giving gubernatorial candidates more than $5,000 each election "cycle," but there are legal ways to skirt those limits. For example, David Voelker of Metairie can be linked to seven separate donations to Jindal in 2007 and 2008 totaling $35,000. One contribution was made in his name, three others were from companies he has an interest in and three more came from other members of the Voelker family sharing the same address as David Voelker. All were perfectly legal.
Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political money on the federal level, says the federal government already has rules on the books requiring disclosure of business interests. "It's a great help when you're trying to track down the total donations from one corporation to a candidate or on an issue," he says.
When it comes to the state contracts given to contributors, transparency has increased under Jindal. Last year, Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis launched an online database of vendor payments made by the state. Moreover, Michael DiResto, Davis' director of communications, says an initiative is already underway to post the full text of vendor contracts online, which should add an entirely new layer of disclosure to state spending. But without a bill that requires donors to disclose their companies and/or their employers, it will still be difficult for citizens to connect the dots between individual donors and contracts.
Concern: Jindal's campaign spent $724,000 during the governor's first year in office, more than many statewide officials raised. He also outcollected and outspent the state's two previous governors in their freshman years combined. And, despite his "Buy Louisiana" campaign, less than one-third of Jindal's expenditures went to Louisiana vendors.
Solution: Make candidates disclose more details on their expenditure reports to let citizens know where campaign money is going — and why.
How, and more specifically, where Louisiana spends its money has become a perennial issue in the Legislature. Talks of preferential treatment come and go every year and nothing seems to be done. Even last week, as lawmakers debated an economic development fund the state uses to lure new businesses, some exchanges became heated when the Senate was reluctant to make sure Louisiana-based companies benefit from new investments. "How much should Louisiana companies get? What's good enough?" asks Sen. Ed Murray, a New Orleans Democrat. "Zero?"
Obviously, that's not the right answer. The key, however, may begin with campaign finance reform, which both the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) — two Baton Rouge-based watchdog groups — contend Jindal has overlooked in his push for ethics reform. Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and demographer from Shreveport, contends that Jindal is actually excluding people from government. "The astronomical amounts of [campaign] spending have bid us up to the point that real people, with real problems, with really good ideas, for all the right reasons, are shut out — literally," Stonecipher says. "And that's the simple truth."
With a national fundraising network unmatched by any previous Louisiana governor, Jindal's campaign contributions exceeded $3.4 million during his first year in office. He's on course to post another record figure in 2009.
Maybe it's time for Jindal to be a trailblazer on the campaign finance reform front as well, where it truly counts. In the end, all the public wants is more information — and a real reform governor.
Just like the man his campaign raised $11 million to promote two years ago.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.