Zurik: Skeet, golf and grub on the campaign trail - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

Lee Zurik Investigation: Skeet, golf and grub on the campaign trail

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

You may think running for office entails hiring consultants, campaign workers and running commercials - and it does. But it's the other stuff politicians buy that raises questions.

"It seems like, given the vagueness of the language in the statute, that they could basically use these accounts as their personal checking accounts," says Ed Chervenak, a UNO professor and political analyst.

That law allowed politicians to spend $1.5 million out of their campaign funds from 2009 through 2012 on food, strictly at restaurants.

Tops on the list is Ruth's Chris Steak House at $171,000. Next is Sal and Judy's on the North Shore and Andrea's in Metairie. Two Baton Rouge restaurants round out the top 5: Camelot Club and Sullivan's Steakhouse. Politicians spent almost $37,000 at Middendorf's. Rounding out the top 10 are restaurants in Shreveport and Lake Charles, Antoine's in New Orleans' French Quarter, and Dakota in Covington.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain has spent $3,600 on dues at the Mule Hunting Club in Abita Springs. But that doesn't top the list for campaign expenses at hunting and shooting facilities.

Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge is number one - politicians spent about $100,000 there. Joey Durel, Lafayette's city/parish president, spent a large amount of that money, holding fundraisers at Grosse Savanne in 2009 and 2011. He had a second expense in 2011 that he labeled "hunting" – the total cost of that trip was almost $13,000.

We can tell you that much of the money spent at the top 10 hunting and shooting facilities appears to be associated with campaign fundraisers. But some campaign documents were vague and included such language as "skeet shooting" or "skeet expenses."

Politicians spent more on Metairie's Krewe of Argus than any other Mardi Gras parade: $83,000. Next on the list are the Krewes of Excalibur, Zulu and Acadiana. Hermes comes in at number 5 - one reason for that is expenditures by former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle. He paid dues for the parade out of his campaign: $1,800. He also let campaign donors pay for tickets to the supper dance, and buy some beads.

Many politicians allowed their campaign to buy tickets to the Endymion Extravaganza. Parades in Monroe, uptown New Orleans, the West Bank and Minden round out the Mardi Gras top 10.

Politicians spent almost $1.4 million at golf courses. The most was spent at Houma's Ellendale Country Club: $150,000. Next is Sugarland Country Club in Raceland, followed by the University Club in Baton Rouge. Senate President John Alario had the most expenses at the University Club: $7,000. According to his campaign reports, he spent money for "entertainment" - sometimes, but not always, he clarified the purpose as entertainment of constituents and public officials.

Rounding out the golf course top 10 are Bayou Barriere in Belle Chasse, Stonebridge in Gretna, La Tour, Belle Terre, English Turn, Indian Hills, and Carter Plantation in Springfield.

Campaigns sometimes even bought items at jewelry stores. Governor Bobby Jindal helped put Lee Michaels at the top spot. Jindal can't run for governor again in Louisiana; still, in 2012, he bought campaign staff buckles totaling $4,200. In 2010, Jindal again spent more than $4,000 at Lee Michaels - he labeled it a fundraising expense.

When we asked the governor's office for comment on these particular expenditures, Communications Director Kyle Plotkin sent us this statement: "According to the campaign, the buckles were for top donors and campaign staff, and the other dollars were for lapel pins for top donors and spouses of legislators."

New Orleans-based Adler's came in at number 5 of the top 10 jewelers list; Aucoin Hart is number 10.

Also of note is Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, who spent campaign money at jewelry stores on three different occasions - for graduation gifts. Representative Harold Ritchie of Franklinton used campaign money for a $50 wedding gift.

Politicians bought plenty of flowers over the past four years. Billeann's in Baton Rouge is at the top of the list, politicians spending a total of $25,000 there.

Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden was the top spender at Billeann's. Many times be bought more than $1,000 of flowers at one time. He labeled them "flowers/baskets" and "flowers/plants" – there was no reason given why this should be a campaign expense.

We asked Holden for comment on this story, and his attorney, Gray Sexton, sent us this statement: "Indeed, expenditures made by Mayor Holden for 2011/2012 for floral arrangements, plants, gifts to constituents and to their minor children and related expenditures for special events were all challenged in a District Court suit filed by the Ethics Board against Mayor Holden. A trial was conducted and a Judgment was rendered on every issue in favor of Mayor Holden. The District Court correctly concluded that the expenditures were reasonably related to the holding of public office and that it is consistent with elected office for elected officials to make expenditures for floral arrangements for funerals, weddings and other special events for constituents and to otherwise provide reasonable support and encouragement for the minor children of constituents insofar as concerns travel and educational occurrences." As Sexton notes, the ruling was later affirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeal.

Villere's Florist came in at number 2 on the list - politicians spent $16,000 there.

As we look at the rest of the top 10 list for flower shops, we once again find Mayor Holden. He was the biggest spender on flowers and plants overall, spending almost $28,000 on flowers the past four years. That comes to 20 percent of all flower purchases reported by politicians.

Plenty of campaign money was also spent at casinos and gambling establishments. Paragon Casino and Resort in Marksville tops the list, while the Fair Grounds in New Orleans came in at number 2.

One interesting note from Fair Grounds expenses: Former New Orleans City Councilman Eddie Sapir used his campaign war chest for membership fees at the Fair Grounds, paying $1,300 in 2012, $1,250 in 2011, and $1,100 in 2010. Sapir hasn't been in office since 2006.

Politicians spent $15,000 at Boomtown, mainly for fundraisers. Isle of Capri makes the top 10 list because Lake Charles-area District Attorney John DeRosier held a Christmas party there that cost $5,300. DeRosier told us by phone that his annual Christmas parties are attended by hundreds of people, and that admission for each of them is a toy for a needy child. He also tells us that such events have a significant campaign value, that they allow him to meet and greet constituents and supporters.

Harrah's Lake Tahoe is also in the top 10, thanks to a $2,600 expenditure by former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard on what he labeled an annual trip.

It's no surprise politicians spent money on catering. It's a fundraising expense, and some well-known caterers make the top 10 list.

After looking at the second top caterer on the list, the Lakehouse in Mandeville, we dug deeper. We found that most of the money came from St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed. So we looked closer at Reed's 2012 campaign finance report - it raises questions.

That year, Reed spent at least $183,000 on fundraising expenses, including the caterer, entertainment, security and invitations.

That year, Reed raised a total of $223,000.

When we look at the rest of his campaign expenses, we find that, in addition to the $183,000 on fundraising expenses, Reed donated $18,000 to other campaigns and some charities, spent $26,000 on food and $4,000 on campaign management, paying for an accountant and a cell phone.

All totaled, he spent $232,000.

It's a lot of numbers, but take a closer look. Of the $232,000 spent, 79 percent was on raising money, 11 percent on food, 8 percent on donations and only 2 percent on actually running a campaign.

But there's more. In 2012, Reed paid another caterer, Liquid Bread LLC, $29,400. State records show the owner of that company is Steven Reed, Walter Reed's son.

Steven Reed also owns a production company. Since 2009, the St. Tammany DA has paid his son's catering and production companies a total of $56,318.34 of campaign money.

It's campaign finance reports such as this - and the top 10 lists - that have watchdogs calling for legislators to change the law.

"I think I have a cast iron stomach when it comes to being sick," says political watchdog and blogger C.B. Forgotston. "But it makes me feel that the politicians think I'm stupid, and that we're all stupid, with their excuses. I'd rather them just say, ‘Hell yeah, it's a slush fund.'"

 

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