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Follow the Money 

Tainted donations, unofficial endorsements and stealth campaigns can all be found in the latest round of congressional fundraising reports.

Freshman Congressman Bobby Jindal used his campaign war chest to donate $2,500 to a Christian scholarship fund in Georgia. Rep. Charlie Melancon spent roughly half of that on fundraising prizes from Alligator Bits and Pieces, a Houma retailer. Congressman Richard Baker dropped a few hundred at Caddy Shack, a golf-themed restaurant operated by comedian Bill Murray. The Bossier Chamber of Commerce got $200 from Rep. Jim McCrery.

Campaign finance reports can be extremely enlightening -- revealing everything from religious leanings to political alliances. They are also grossly mundane, with their wealth of catering bills and travel reimbursements and office supplies. Nonetheless, campaign accounts are central to American politics, and there are indications that donations by congressmen are on an upswing, according to the second-quarter reports.

Everyone gave to nonprofits and to personal rebuilding efforts until they were tapped dry following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, but international events and domestic unrest are waking people up, says Becky Donatelli, president of Campaign Solutions. Her Virginia-based fundraising firm has handled campaigns for the likes of Bush/Cheney and Louisiana's own Jindal.

"We are seeing a major bounce back," Donatelli says. "We are beginning to see all the old trends again. In many instances, we are returning to six-figure races now in July, rather than in November like in previous years."

Raising money is one thing; spending it is another. Spending decisions can be just as strategic as fundraising, and often just as important. Because federal laws allow congressmen to use their campaign accounts to contribute to other candidates' local campaigns, the second-quarter reports have forced some Louisiana congressmen to show their hands in the upcoming fall elections. In other instances, the reports suggest their intentions of running for higher office.

Also divulged is the fallout from a criminal case involving two former executives of LifeCare Holdings, a health-care company that was recently sold off. The two executives and their wives were busted for giving congressmen donations that were later reimbursed by LifeCare through salary bonuses, travel expenses and other means. Because corporate donations are prohibited, the men and LifeCare had to pay stiff fines.

Three Louisiana House members were thus forced by the Federal Elections Commission to refund improper donations they received from LifeCare, which operated an acute-care facility in Memorial Hospital where 24 patients died following Hurricane Katrina. The disbursements were treated as expenses in the second-quarter reports, and each lawmaker's campaign refers to the tainted money differently.

The description used by Congressman Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican, is "MUR 5398," which is the case number assigned by the FEC. Michael DiResto, Baker's spokesperson, says the LifeCare donation was unsolicited and the congressman was planning to return it before the FEC mandated its refund.

"It was not an option," DiResto says.

Congressman William Jefferson, a New Orleans Democrat, was forced to return $3,500, a sum clearly identified as "LifeCare conciliation" on his campaign finance report.

Meanwhile, McCrery, a Republican from Shreveport, reported a $200 line item paid out to the U.S. Treasury -- the agency overseeing the refund process -- as "return previous contribution." McCrery received his $200 LifeCare donation in June 1998, according to FEC records.

Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux and current U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, both Louisiana Democrats, also received LifeCare money, but "there is no indication that any of the recipient federal candidates ... were aware that the contributions were being reimbursed with corporate funds," the FEC states in a press release.

Despite hiccups like these, most candidates agree that contributions can do much more than just help candidates run for re-election. Then again, what else would people who are receiving millions in contributions say?

Endorsements, for instance, are sometimes handed out in the form of a check. Robert E. Hogan, a political science professor at Louisiana State University whose research interests include campaign finance, says using donations to other politicians is a good way to garner votes for leadership positions and important issues. "For a lot of incumbents, it's a good, symbolic way of saying, 'I'm with you,' without coming out and endorsing someone," Hogan says. "It is a common way of greasing the wheel."

Baker, who is locked in a brutal chairmanship battle for the Financial Services Committee, doled out thousands of dollars to a dozen congressional incumbents during the second quarter. He also wrote a $2,000 check to the campaign of state Sen. Jay Dardenne, a fellow Baton Rouge Republican who is running for secretary of state.

Congressman Rodney Alexander, a Quitman Democrat, also got involved in local races this year, donating to two state House campaigns -- $1,000 to Jim Fannan, presently a state representative from Jonesboro, and $1,000 to Tony Owens, a failed Ruston candidate.

Of the entire Louisiana House delegation, no one spent more money from April through June than Jindal, who dropped a whopping $1 million into operations. More than half of that staggering figure went into a major media buy. Jindal's camp has told reporters the aggressive and early move was made out of fear that media time would be gobbled up during the fall elections.

However, Jindal's ridiculously high approval ratings and massive war chest probably preclude any real opposition. So what's the deal?

Hogan says Jindal's report reveals more about what will unfold over the next year or so, not just this fall. Republicans universally tout Jindal as the logical GOP challenger to Gov. Kathleen Blanco in the fall of 2008. Spending $1 million of other people's money in the fall of 2007 is a great way to start his campaign against Blanco, particularly in light of the fact that Jindal's campaign can legitimately buy time in the state's two biggest media markets -- New Orleans and Baton Rouge -- in the name of reaching all corners of his congressional district.

It's all a testament to the flexibility of the modern campaign account, Hogan adds.

"It's fair to interpret most of what he's doing as an effort to build a foundation for a run for governor," Hogan says. "I don't think he is overly concerned about his media buy and money spilling over into other markets."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge The latest campaign finance reports of Louisiana - Congressman Bobby Jindal, Richard Baker, William - Jefferson and others are extremely enlightening and - reveal everything from religious leanings to political - alliances to future ambitions. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • The latest campaign finance reports of Louisiana Congressman Bobby Jindal, Richard Baker, William Jefferson and others are extremely enlightening and reveal everything from religious leanings to political alliances to future ambitions.
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