A number of contributors to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s campaign fund have been appointed to state boards and commissions and received state contracts and economic development grants, according to a comprehensive report by two major news organizations in New Orleans. NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 News spent four months taking a close look at 740,000 campaign contributions made between 2009 and 2012.
Not since the days of former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards has a Louisiana chief executive’s contributions been so closely linked to those who receive something in return. It was often said during Edwards’ four terms that being a friend of the governor or a political contributor were the most important qualifications for anyone who wanted to work for or do business with the state or receive a political appointment.
Manuel Torres of NOLA.com and Lee Zurik of Fox 8 News wrote a half-dozen stories about political contributions. They said at least 317 Jindal appointees, their families and their companies gave the governor’s campaign more than $1.8 million in 704 contributions made during a four-year period ending in 2012.
“Their donations made up more than 13 percent of the $13.3 million Jindal raised in that period — a significant haul from a relatively small group among thousands of Jindal donors,” the writers said.
You can understand why readers might think the appointments look like political payoffs. And those who insist it’s not so use the same arguments we have heard since political contributions were conceived. They say it’s only natural for a governor to select his allies for policy roles and the contributions are almost coincidental.
Jindal didn’t grant an interview to discuss his campaign finances, but his office issued a statement saying appointments are made on the basis of a person’s experience and whether the appointment serves the state’s best interests. It added that contracts are determined by individual state agencies and are usually vetted through a competitive bid process. However, that isn’t always the case.
Most governors receive campaign contributions, but Jindal took in nearly three times as much money as former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the writers said. They added that Jindal vetoed a bill in 2009 that would have required the governor and other elected officials to disclose how much board appointees contributed to their campaigns.
The reporters looked at 12 state boards and commissions whose members are all appointed by the governor. They found that almost every gubernatorial appointee — 96 of 118 — gave to Jindal’s campaign. Many members of three boards gave significant amounts. Those on the Board of Commerce and Industry gave $346,000; the Board of Regents, more than $286,000; and the LSU Board of Supervisors, more than $226,000.
“Bundling” is a favorite tactic of some contributors. They give individually and through companies and other entities they own. It’s legal so long as one donor doesn’t pay others to serve as front organizations to make contributions.
Bryan Bossier, an Alexandria construction executive, and his family and companies have given Jindal $137,000, nearly all since 2006, according to Torres and Zurik. They said on Feb. 8, 2012, the governor received $95,000 in contributions from 11 Louisiana corporations and eight individuals linked to Bossier. One of his companies has been awarded $49 million in highway bid work since October of 2012.
Jimmy Martin Jr., a Cutoff businessman, was No. 2 with nearly $70,000 in bundled contributions since 2007. Ray Brandt, a Metairie auto dealer, his wife and six of his companies have given $55,000 since 2007. All three men were appointed to state boards and commissions.
Brandt defended his role, saying he’s a true public servant who gave money to the governor for the betterment of the people. He said he gets no form of compensation and told the reporters, “... It’s horrible that people like you put a spin on this to make people look bad.”
The writers said some of the governor’s donations came as the state awarded incentives and contracts. They said shipbuilder Walter Thomassie’s company put up $2 million and got $9 million from the state as an incentive to construct two new dry docks at the Port of Terrebonne. Jindal attended the christening ceremony on Oct. 12, 2011, and the two reporters said records show the governor’s campaign that same day got $7,500 in bundled donations from Thomassie and his parents.
Madden Contracting, a Minden construction company, got two state highway contracts in 2010. In March and April of that year, Jindal’s campaign received $15,000 in bundled contributions after one of those contracts was awarded and another $15,000 before the next one was handed out.
Former Gov. Buddy Roemer got the Legislature to set campaign contribution limits, hoping smaller contributions from more people would improve the democratic process. He told Torres and Zurik it hasn’t worked out that way.
“In the name of freedom, we’ve allowed those super at the top — either wealthy individuals or, more sinisterly, wealthy causes, special interest groups — to buy the system,” Roemer said.
Most of the donors in the report titled “Louisiana Purchased,” declined to respond when asked for their reaction. No surprise there. What could they say that we haven’t heard before? Contributors could decline the paybacks as possible conflicts of interest, but they don’t. This is the way the political game is played. And Jindal — like Edwards — has proved to be better at it than most.
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org