BATON ROUGE, La. (KSLA) — With summer in full bloom and the sun shining bright in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Capitol largely sits quiet as most lawmakers are spending the dog days of summer back home raising cash and preparing for their re-election campaigns.
With election day quickly approaching, KSLA Investigates combed through the most recent campaign finance reports of every state senator and representative in Louisiana to see exactly how they’re spending the dollars donated to their campaigns.
An examination of those reports shows our elected leaders purchasing political ads on radio and TV, buying yard signs and campaign posters, as well as spending large sums renting offices, hiring staffs and paying for supplies like pens, computers and internet service.
For the most part, ordinary campaign stuff.
What KSLA Investigates didn’t expect to find in the finance reports filed earlier this year were three senators and a representative using campaign cash to lease cars. And, according to the size of the monthly payments, the cars being leased are nice, with one lawmaker paying more than $1,000 a month.
But that spending doesn’t shock Edward Chervenak, a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans.
“This is just Louisiana politics at its worst."
The four legislators KSLA Investigates found driving cars paid for by campaign dollars include:
- Speaker of the House Taylor Barras, whose lease tops $600 a month;
- Sen. Yvonne Doresy-Colomb, of Baton Rouge, who is spending around $500 each month;
- Senate President John Alario Jr., with a lease costing just above $360 per month; and,
- Sen. Greg Tarver of Shreveport, who by far spends the most, shelling out more than $1,100 a month to lease a Mercedes-Benz.
Chervenak says the lawmakers aren’t doing anything illegal because Louisiana campaign finance law only says you can’t purchase a vehicle with campaign funds.
However, as a longtime critic of how Louisiana lawmakers spend campaign dollars, Chrevenak says the veteran lawmakers have found a clever detour around the state’s campaign finance rules.
“Obviously, they’re violating the spirit of the law by leasing these vehicles and using their campaign finance accounts to pay for those leases."
Tarver completely disagrees.
“It does not violate the spirit of the law, Number 1. The law is very, very clear. You can’t buy a car anymore, and we just lease it.”
Now it’s important to point out, these legislators are not spending tax dollars on cars. This is private money donated to their political campaigns.
So why should you or I care?
Because Louisiana law says campaign cash cannot be spent for “personal use unrelated to a campaign or the holding of public office."
Looking at their latest finance reports, the Barras campaign spent $4,336 on a car lease in 2018. Colomb’s campaign paid $7,906 for a KIA. Alario’s campaign leased a Buick Enclave for just over $7,200. And Tarver’s campaign forked over $13,599.96 for a lease with Mercedes-Benz.
But none of these lawmakers fully disclosed “the purpose” that these high-dollar vehicles serve in relation to their “campaign or holding office” … even though state law says they should.
In an interview with KSLA Chief Investigative Reporter Stacey Cameron, Tarver justified his lease.
“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," Tarver explained.
"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.”
Speaking with Cameron by phone, Alario also disagreed with the idea that leasing a car with campaign cash violates the spirit of Louisiana’s prohibition against campaigns using donated funds to buy vehicles.
And like Tarver, Alario defended his campaign leasing the car he drives in his role as an elected official.
“As president of the Senate, I have unusual responsibilities in this district and in different parts of the state,” Alario said, adding that he represents one of the largest Senate districts in Louisiana.
“So there’s lots of responsibilities that I have that require me to use a vehicle.”
Alario also points out that he pays an additional $400 a month out of his pocket to lease the Buick he drives, while Tarver says he personally pays for the gasoline, vehicle maintenance and insurance for his Mercedes-Benz.
But Chervenak is skeptical, saying lawmakers leasing high-dollar cars with campaign cash is a bad look in the eyes of the people they serve.
“It’s all about self-interest," the professor said. “If there’s a loophole to be found, they’re going to drive their Mercedes-Benz right through it.”
KSLA Investigates also reached out to the offices of Barras and Dorsey-Colomb, but neither returned a message asking for comment about their campaigns leasing cars.