BEAM: Campaign Contributions Fuel High Living

Do contributors to political campaigns really care about how politicians spend their money? Apparently not. Some $196 million was spent from 2009 to 2012, and one-fourth of that went for questionable expenditures. However, there has been little or no feedback from those who put up the money. Times Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 News, both in New Orleans, have begun the second phase of their in-depth look at campaign spending called “Louisiana Purchased.” It’s a monumental task that has never been done with so much detail. But you have to wonder whether it will result in more accountability from those public officials who are living the high life on other people’s money.

One of the more interesting aspects of this latest installment is a detailed look at where public officials love to eat. They have spent more than $1.5 million in campaign money at Louisiana restaurants over that four-year period, and three in Southwest Louisiana are among the top 100.

Mazen’s of Lake Charles came in at No. 8 position, receiving $34,214 from 2009 to 2012. Mr. Bill’s Seafood in Lake Charles received $14,970 to rank 30th. The Cajun Cowboy Restaurant in Vinton is at No. 66, receiving $7,580.

No one was surprised to learn that Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Metairie and a few other locations received $171,205 to claim the No. 1 position. The restaurant in Baton Rouge has been where the political elite have met for years. Other steak houses around the state were also popular, as were seafood, Creole and Italian restaurants.

Other campaign funds were spent on golf games, club dues, gifts to others, tickets to professional sporting events, anniversary and wedding gifts, gym dues, travel expenses, vehicles and for contributions to other public officials.

How do public officials get away with such a wide latitude about how they spend campaign money? State law is vague, that’s how. It says politicians shouldn’t spend campaign funds for personal expenses, but says it’s OK if the spending is related to campaigning or holding office. You can see how buying a tube of toothpaste, for example, can be linked to campaigning or holding office.

Some officials took in campaign money above the legal limit, but only a few have given back the excess contributions. And the state Ethics Board appears to be unable to make those officeholders accountable.

When the series was first published, some legislators said they would take steps to tighten how campaign money could be spent. That responsibility rests with the governor and the Legislature, but it would be a surprise if much comes from that effort. Little has been done in the past.

Those public officials who are engaged in questionable campaign spending always manage to come up with convenient excuses. Some say if the people or groups that make political contributions don’t like the way the money is spent they can quit giving. Others simply ignore the issue altogether. The writers of the series said some involved in questionable spending haven’t answered requests to discuss their campaign finances.

State Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, is spotlighted once again as the big spender. Reporters last fall said he spent at least $57,000 during the four-year period on tickets to sporting events, Jazz Fest and other events. However, they have done a more thorough examination of his spending, including payments made through credit cards with little itemization.

Alario and his Alario political action committee have spent $182,000 for tickets and payments to LSU, the Saints, Hornets, the Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge and other categories. It was the senator’s largest spending category.

What does he have to say about it? Nothing, and don’t expect him to. If there were ever a Teflon official, Alario is it. Others have followed the Senate president’s lead by creating their own PACs, which means double the money, double the fun.

If you think there is anything the Ethics Board can do about any of this, forget it. It doesn’t even have the staff it takes to monitor these things, and legislators obviously like it that way. The board would like to have clearer rules and guidelines, but it hasn’t happened.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, is a member of the joint Governmental Affairs Committee that could tighten campaign spending laws. He favors more disclosure than more rules on how money can be spent.

More disclosure won’t make any difference. If the voting public really cared about how politicians spend their contributions, something would be done to tighten spending restrictions. However, most of the contributions are coming from organizations, lobbyists and the wealthy. They give to get access to public officials, who aren’t interested in cutting off the flow of millions in contributions that help them live a lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed.

It has often been said that we get some of the best public officials money can buy, and that’s a shame because a majority of them play by the rules. This is obviously one of those instances where “all it takes is a few bad apples to spoil the barrel.”

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