SADOW: It’s Time To Put Some Teeth In Louisiana’s Car Leasing Ethics Law

It seems a Shreveport television station has stumbled upon a well-known loophole in Louisiana’s campaign finance law. It’s a reminder that legislation needs to fix this.

Trawling through campaign finance reports of state legislators, a reporter discovered that four legislators use campaign finance funds to lease vehicles. One, House Speaker Taylor Barras, presents something of a surprise given his above-the-board reputation, but perhaps no other legislator has a greater claim on doing something like this given the duties of the speaker that require much far-flung automobile travel.

The other three should come as no surprise. Senate Pres. John Alario has a long history of playing fast and loose with this law. Despite his running an accounting firm and having sat in the Legislature almost a half-century and seeing every meaningful campaign finance law enacted in that period, Alario’s campaign has been plagued by at best shoddy, at worst illegal reporting of contributions and expenditures. In fact, his campaign finance habits have drawn Federal Bureau of Investigation scrutiny, although for reasons unknown that seems to have stalled.

State Sen. Yvonne Colomb also has a history of abusing laws dealing with finances. For years, she steered public money to from her elected post at the very least to a poorly-run nonprofit, at the very worst a sham charity designed to suck in taxpayer monies for a favored few, including her family.

Then there’s state Sen. Greg Tarver, who beat the rap on corruption charges similar to those that sunk former Gov. Edwin Edwards nearly two decades ago. As questionable as is the vehicle-leasing practice, his lease price dwarfs the others, nearly reaching his annual legislative salary.

With his customary bravado, Tarver defended his action. “It does not violate the spirit of the law…. When you’re a 100 percent legislator like I am, you have to have a nice car. You have to have a safety car to go to Baton Rouge all the time. There’s a lot of wrecks on the road. I’m concerned about my safety; and that’s the reason I drive the best car money can buy.”

If Tarver considers himself a full-time legislator, he thinks contrary to the Constitution. Art. X Sec. 29.1 specifically defines his job as part-time, so he unconstitutionally justifies his use of those funds. But he is right on the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.

But the law also says (for money received after 1990) that it shall not be used for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of public office or party position, with a vehicle purchase for any reason specifically outlawed in 2014. So, let’s put some teeth into that.

Next year, the new legislature should pass a law requiring reporting of all leased vehicle use. On an annual basis, those leasing vehicles should have to record (for later posting online) the times and odometer beginning and end for each trip related to campaigning, holding office, or holding a party position, with an explanation of the trip. This would verify no personal use of the vehicle. Let’s watch Tarver, assuming he can retain his office against perhaps the least competent legislator in office right now state Rep. Barbara Norton, starting next year filling out a time sheet every time he gets behind the wheel (the other three are term-limited).

Better, just revoke the leasing exception. That only those with at least 12 years in Legislature (Barras; the others had prior service beyond their current stretches in the Senate) engage in this practice shows that less swamp-familiar legislators think the practice not worth the hassle, if not outright disapprove of the idea. Surely a majority in both chambers would back such a repeal.

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