First in a series of stories on the campaign finances of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
It was almost a threat, but he delivered it with a down-home country smile, the kind that hints of mischief and promises all kinds of hell. Sen. Ben Nevers, with a twang that's distinctly Washington Parish, told members of the Senate and Government Affairs Committee he was going to have his staff produce a list of political appointees and how much money each had contributed to the elected officials responsible for their appointments.
Like a Cajun doing a two-step, Nevers danced around the issue for a while, but his true intentions eventually became clear. His target was Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who had brought lawmakers together for a special session on ethics reform. It was almost a year ago, on Feb. 15, 2008, when Nevers spoke the truth to power: "I think many people in this state think you get a board or commission seat by buying it. I want to get rid of that perception."
In the House, Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin, a balding and boisterous Democrat who worked under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, was aiming high as well. He made a principled stand and pushed similar legislation through the House's committee process. But, like Nevers, his bill lost traction when it reached the floor.
In hindsight, Jones says he should have realized the concept of buying appointments to key boards and commissions was rooted too deeply in the ethos of Louisiana's executive and legislative branches. "These boards and commissions have been for sale for more than 100 years," Jones says. "That's why I filed that bill. I thought there was going to be enough will to change things. I thought, for whatever reason, that we were actually holding a special session just for ethics reforms. I was wrong."
As for Nevers, his list never materialized, although it would have come in handy for Rep. Neil Abramson of New Orleans. The Democratic freshman pushed the issue a few months later during the 2008 regular session. Abramson's bill would have forced elected officials to publicly report the names of campaign contributors they subsequently hire or appoint.
During those early days of Jindal's new administration — his political honeymoon — many assumed the governor would support Abramson's bill. Key administration officials kept in contact with him over a five-month period and helped draft the language. Both the House and Senate passed the measure handily.
Jindal vetoed the bill, however, on July 10, 2008, when the regular session ended. Abramson still remembers it as a "dark day for our efforts at true ethics reform."
Jindal, meanwhile, was just beginning to build his own stable of political appointees. As his brand took hold nationally, Jindal made the rounds of TV networks, appearing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and as a talking head on cable news shows preaching the gospel of a "new day" in Louisiana. During these heady times, he appointed one campaign contributor after another to the state's most influential boards and commissions.
Just like so many of his predecessors.
Today, the Jindal list contains the names of more than 200 campaign donors, based on a review of the 1,738 appointments he has announced since taking office in January 2008. To say he has placed those appointments on a fast track would be an understatement: Jindal appointed more people — 1,478 individuals — to public positions during his first year in office than Blanco did after two legislative sessions in 2004 and 2005.
Moreover, the donors Jindal appointed to key positions can be traced back to more than $784,000 in contributions to the governor's campaign kitty in 2007 and 2008, according to financial records on file with the state Ethics Board. During those two years, Jindal received some 23,000 individual donations.
When asked if the money played a role in Jindal's decision-making process, spokesman Kyle Plotkin dismissed the notion. "Gov. Jindal won 60 out of 64 parishes in his election as governor and is proud to have a broad variety of supporters from all across the state," Plotkin wrote in an email. "Those who contribute to the governor's campaign are supporting his agenda to reform the state, plain and simple. Appointments to boards and commissions are based strictly on an individual's experience, recommendations and suitability for the position."
In all, there are now some 76 state boards and commissions with at least one representative from Jindal's ever-expanding donor list. While most of the high-profile panels are stacked with top backers, smaller boards have not been overlooked — from the Louisiana Cosmetology Board to the state Embalming and Funeral Directors Board. Jindal has even packed some panels beyond the tipping point, such as the Louisiana Medical Advisory Board. Of the 16 doctors he appointed last July to the 18-member board, based on nominations from a set of medical associations, 12 were donors to his campaign.
One of the top money panels seems to be the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors, from which four appointees can be credited with giving Jindal's campaign more than $63,000 over the past two years. Paul Dickson of Shreveport can be linked to $35,000 in contributions via his business and a group of donors sharing his last name and address. Individual donors are prohibited from giving gubernatorial candidates more than $5,000 each election "cycle," but there are ways to skirt the legal limits. For example, a husband and wife can each give the limit, and each business they own can likewise give the maximum without violating the law.
When faced with stricter financial reporting requirements adopted last year — a product of Jindal's special session on ethics reform — Dickson stepped down from the UL System Board of Supervisors. Dickson did not return calls for an interview for this story. Jindal, though, didn't miss a beat after Dickson's resignation. The governor replaced him with Ed Crawford III, also of Shreveport, a $10,000 donor to the Jindal campaign.
On the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry, 11 members collectively gave Jindal's campaign $49,000. Very few of the donors contacted for this story returned calls and even fewer agreed to speak on the record.
Lance B. Belcher of Baton Rouge, who's responsible for $10,000 of that sum, says he was not looking for a public position when he gave money to Jindal. In fact, he says he handed over the loot because Jindal was promising to end corruption. "I didn't even want a position, definitely not a paid one like this," Belcher says. "But I would have cleaned up the front yard of the mansion if Gov. Jindal asked me to."
Col. Jim Champagne, former executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, suggests Jindal has handled political appointments just like previous governors.
Last year, Champagne was fired after serving more than a decade under three governors. He disagreed with the Jindal administration's plan to repeal Louisiana's law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, and he was shown the door after a meeting with Timmy Teepell, the governor's chief of staff and head of Jindal's political brain trust. "To be perfectly honest, it's political patronage right down the line, just like other governors," Champagne says. "It's just a repayment to friends for help, possibly financial. That's what boards and commissions are there for. That's what they do."
Download a chart of major contributors to Gov. Bobby Jindal's campaign who have been appointed to state boards and commissions.
The hard data certainly does little to bolster Team Jindal's defense. Members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority gave Jindal's campaign $57,000; members of the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council forked over more than $48,000; members of the Superdome Commission were good for $45,000; and Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission members' donations topped $37,000.
The state Mineral Board, which is primarily responsible for awarding Louisiana's oil and gas leases, is another panel packed with Jindal supporters. Its four most recent appointees collectively gave Jindal's campaign $35,000. Carol LeBlanc, a Raceland resident and former board member, didn't give Jindal a penny. She says that's why she wasn't reappointed.
LeBlanc was originally appointed under Blanco, but she was never interviewed by Jindal when her term expired. "I was the only woman on the board at the time and the only member from the central coastline," LeBlanc says. "I guess I was expecting not to be reappointed because I didn't donate money to [Jindal]. That's all I kept hearing back then from various people, that I needed to donate something."
While there's no evidence Jindal actually sold seats on boards and commissions, the apparent correlation between major donors and top appointees shouldn't be taken lightly, says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), a Baton Rouge-based good government group. "I think this is a continuation of past practices," Brandt says. "It shows that there really isn't a new day in Louisiana. You pay to play — that's always been the perception, if not the reality. I think this is the kind of information that should be disclosed."
Plotkin contends there's no quid pro quo and the appointments and contributions in question merely reflect the large amounts of support — financial and otherwise — Jindal has engendered as a reform governor. He says Jindal reviews a variety of factors before making appointments and believes it's critical that appointees "have an interest or record that indicates he or she would provide substantive input on a board or commission."
It's important to note that in many cases state law requires the governor to select appointees only from a list of nominations submitted by a particular group, such as lawmakers, college officials or local business associations. However, the panels that have brought in the most campaign dough for Jindal are almost, but not totally, appointed personally by the governor. Those include the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors, the Board of Commerce and Industry, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council, the Superdome Commission and the Mineral Board.
Plotkin also says the governor's selection process includes a background assessment "to see if there is anything substantial that would prohibit someone from serving on a board." But that doesn't mean some things don't slip through the cracks.
Last October, William Fenstermaker of Lafayette donated $5,000 to Jindal's campaign. Roughly one month later, he was appointed by Jindal to the I-49 South Feasibility and Funding Task Force. According to projects detailed on the Web site of C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates, of which William Fenstermaker is chairman, the company has been contracted in the past by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to do a variety of I-49-related work.
Fenstermaker says he made the $5,000 donation to support good government and doesn't believe there's a conflict of interest with his business and the task force, which he was originally appointed to by former Gov. Mike Foster. "Those are portions of the project we were awarded before I was on the task force, and you couldn't eat based on what we got," he says. "I do very little work with DOTD. I'm not what you would call a political insider."
As for his company pursuing I-49 work in the future, Fenstermaker left that open. "I would think that it would be bad for me to tell my engineering group not to put in a proposal for the [requests for proposals] process, but I doubt we have the size to prime a contract like that," he says. "But we could be part of a team, although it would be a slim chance that we would be selected. The task force has nothing to do with selecting the contractor. We didn't even meet under Blanco and haven't met yet under Jindal, either."
While Fenstermaker's appointment to the I-49 task force presents potential conflicts of interest worth asking about, the dates of his donation and subsequent appointment are also remarkably congruent. In fact, several of Jindal's appointments were doled out in close proximity to major donations. A few examples:
• Roland Toups of Baton Rouge gave Jindal $5,000 just two months before he was appointed to the Board of Regents in December of last year.
• Fellow Baton Rouge native Todd Graves, owner of the fast-food chain Raising Cane's, gave Jindal another $5,000 just a few weeks after being appointed to the Small Business Entrepreneurship Committee in August.
• Jacob Giardina of Thibodaux gave the governor's campaign a maximum $5,000 donation on Dec. 31, roughly one month after being appointed to the Bayou Lafourche Freshwater District Board of Directors.
Most if not all of Jindal's board appointments must win approval in the state Senate, starting with the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is charged with vetting such appointments and sending them to the floor for a final vote. Several phone calls to Sen. Robert W. Kostelka, the Republican chairman of the committee, went unreturned. Other committee members, including Democrats, also failed to respond to similar inquiries about Jindal's appointments.
So far, Jindal's list has gone unquestioned. That's the way it should be, his supporters say. After all, the governor would be crazy to appoint opponents and critics to state boards and commissions where they could wreak havoc by undermining his policies. Still, what Jindal says about his ethical "gold standard" and what he does are clearly two very different philosophies.
On the matter of appointments, Jindal had a difficult decision to make — follow the pack or break new ground. For reform-minded lawmakers like Nevers, Abramson and Jones, there's no question which path Bobby Jindal has chosen.
"Edwin Edwards used to sell seats for $50,000 each, sometimes selling one seat twice, and he always admitted it," Jones says. "What's the difference between then and now? Really, I don't see a difference."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.