Even critics of Louisiana's lax campaign finance laws concede that the disclosures they require of public officials make it easier for voters to see where candidates get their money — and how they spend it. Knowing that, one would expect politicians to be wary of charging excessive food, automotive and other potentially personal expenses to their campaign accounts.
But "wary" is not a word generally associated with state Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie. LaBruzzo first gained notoriety in 2008 for his lobbying efforts in the state Senate on behalf of the controversial legislative pay raise — senators say he trolled the aisles showing photos of his family and begging them to pass the pay hike — and then for his eugenics proposal. In the wake of the pay raise debacle, he floated the idea of paying poor women $1,000 to be permanently sterilized (that's beyond even what David Duke, one of his predecessors, had suggested) and filed successive — but unsuccessful — bills requiring welfare recipients to be drug tested at state expense.
When it comes to spending campaign money on food and vehicles, LaBruzzo is equally unabashed. Records the lawmaker filed with the state Ethics Administration show he spent more than $18,000 on meals and more than $31,000 on vehicles and fuel between January 2009 and September 2011.
LaBruzzo says all of his expenditures are legal and vetted by the local accounting firm LaPorte. "I walk my district every other year," he told Gambit. "I have expenses that relate to that. Even if it's not in an election cycle, I'm campaigning all the time."
Louisiana's campaign finance laws do not require politicians to provide many details on their reports, but the law does require them to keep detailed records and to produce them if their reports are questioned by the state Ethics Board, which oversees campaign finance reporting in Louisiana. The law is equally vague in defining legitimate campaign expenses. In effect, anything a lawmaker can color as somehow related to a campaign or to holding public office will generally pass muster.
Details — sketchy as they are — in LaBruzzo's campaign finance reports show his campaign paid for at least two vehicles, concurrently, at various times in the last three years, sometimes charging two fuel stops on the same day to his campaign account. The same reports also show him eating high and low — and far and wide — on the campaign tab.
For example, since January 2009 LaBruzzo has paid for a vehicle that his reports label a "campaign truck," even though he has not had to wage a campaign since 2005, when he ran fifth in a special election for the Louisiana Senate. He was unopposed when he ran for re-election to his House seat in 2007. At the same time, his reports show more than $2,300 in vehicle repairs at Lexus of New Orleans in 2009 and 2010. LaBruzzo says he often uses his personal Lexus rather than his campaign's pickup truck, especially for travel to and from Baton Rouge. He says both vehicles are legitimately expensed.
LaBruzzo's reports also show he frequently dines on his contributors' tab — from fast food at McDonald's and Subway to lavish spreads at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baton Rouge and Tony Angello's in Lakeview. His reports typically describe such meals as "working lunch" or "constituent meal," but campaign finance reports typically show no other details. Sometimes LaBruzzo simply wrote "meal" as the description for his expenditure.
For example, his report shows four meals in August 2009: a "campaign/constituent meal" at Brooklyn Pizzeria in Metairie for $20 on Aug. 4; another "campaign/constituent meal" at Acme Oyster House in Metairie for $63.19 on Aug. 7; yet another "campaign/constituent meal" at Houston's in Metairie for $62.83 on Aug. 14; and a "working lunch" at Chinese Chef's II in Thibodaux for $30.11 on Aug. 18. The Metairie Houston's shows up 12 times on his report from 2009 through 2011, with charges ranging from $63 to $127. Most entries are listed as "campaign/constituent meal."
LaBruzzo could not confirm to Gambit that he kept the name of every constituent with whom he dined. In fact, during a phone interview, he seemed surprised that so many entries were listed as "constituent meal."
"I have to check my records to see how we did that, whether we gave that information to our CPA," he said, noting that Michele Avery at the LaPorte firm handles his finance reports. "Whatever she requires, we give to her."
Many lawmakers typically — and legally — charge meals during legislative sessions to their campaign accounts, along with meals shared with constituents or staff, or as part of their fundraising efforts. LaBruzzo's reports show him eating with constituents and having "working lunches" all year long and charging it to his campaign account — and gassing up his "campaign truck" as far away as Grosse Tete, La., which is on the other side of Baton Rouge from his Metairie district.
"I am a higher-revving engine, campaign-wise, and I have the work to back it up," LaBruzzo says. "I walk my district even when I'm not running. I attend fundraisers in other parts of the state for other elected officials. My political aspirations are not ending at state rep for District 81. If the people will have me, I would love to serve in some other capacity. And to do that, you have to build a base."
LaBruzzo added that he rarely lets lobbyists buy him meals -- in contrast to most of his legislative colleagues, he says -- and that's another reason why he taps his campaign account for dining expenses. "You might find my name on one or two lobbyist disclosures, but not many," he says.
LaBruzzo's reports also claim "constituent meals" outside his Metairie and Lakeview district — twice at the Cracker Barrel in Slidell, for example, and twice more at Fremin's Restaurant in Thibodaux. On Oct. 18, 2009, he claimed a "meeting regarding district matters" at Gino's Restaurant in Baton Rouge, to the tune of $220.26. He says when donors give him checks for significant amounts of money, he often takes them to lunch or dinner and picks up the tab, which is perfectly legal. He says he has donors all over the state.
On other occasions, his reports merely claim expenses for a "meal," such as on Jan. 3, 2010, when he charged $250 at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baton Rouge. Lawmakers were not in session then. On several other occasions, he claimed a "constituent meal" at the steak house. He likewise claimed a "meal" at Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar on March 17 — St. Patrick's Day — 2010, for $38.54.
On Nov. 21, 2010, he claimed $22 in "concessions" at the New Orleans Arena. On that date the New Orleans Saints beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Superdome.
LaBruzzo suggested Gambit look at other lawmakers' campaign reports, in particular those of state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego; state Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown; Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-Lakeview (LaBruzzo's opponent in this fall's election); and state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans. We did.
Tucker, Murray and Lorusso's food and vehicle expenses came nowhere near those of LaBruzzo. Only Alario, who is the dean of the Legislature, an authority on the state budget and actively campaigning to be Senate president, rivaled LaBruzzo's total expenses for food, fuel and vehicle use.
Alario's dining expenses, however, were far fewer in number. They show a high-powered senator lavishly entertaining colleagues during legislative sessions and committee meetings — mostly in Baton Rouge — whereas LaBruzzo's meal tabs were year-round and smaller in scale. For example, on Feb. 25, 2010, a full 21 months before the Oct. 22 primary, LaBruzzo charged $10.86 at Honey Baked Ham in Metairie to his campaign account, describing it as a "campaign meal."
Meanwhile, Murray reported nothing for gas and less than $4,900 on meals from 2009 through 2011 — far less than LaBruzzo's more than $49,000 on meals and wheels during that same period.
Similarly, Tucker reported spending a total of $30.52 on fuel during the last three years and about $9,500 on meals, or barely half what LaBruzzo spent on meals. Tucker is House Speaker and currently is running for secretary of state, a statewide office. He and LaBruzzo, though both Republicans, are at odds politically. Tucker says he removed LaBruzzo from the powerful House Appropriations Committee after Tucker received complaints from LaBruzzo's committee colleagues that LaBruzzo repeatedly signed up to receive his per diem pay, then left committee meetings early. LaBruzzo says Tucker removed him for purely political reasons.
When asked why he spent so much on fuel, LaBruzzo said, "I have a campaign truck that doesn't get good gas mileage." When asked how he could gas up a vehicle twice on the same day — or use two "campaign" vehicles — LaBruzzo said, "If you are a higher-revving engine, obviously you're going to burn more fuel."
In response to questions about specific dates in January 2010 on which he gassed up twice in the same day, LaBruzzo searched his records and said he made day trips out of town on official business on those days and had to fill up his car twice each time.
LaBruzzo also suggested that Gambit look closely at the ethics and campaign finance records of his opponent in House District 94, Republican Lorusso.
During the same 2009-11 period, Lorusso spent less than $8,000 on meals, most of them during legislative sessions. Lorusso spent only $560 on gas during that time — all of it during legislative sessions — and nothing on vehicle payments or repairs.
LaBruzzo added Lorusso has "multiple ethics violations" whereas he has none. Ethics records show Lorusso was fined on two occasions for filing his campaign finance reports late four years ago — once on a Monday instead of the previous Thursday, and once for a postmark that was a day past deadline.
Lorusso scoffed at LaBruzzo's insinuation and noted that none of his own expenditures has ever raised red flags. Lorusso also said he wrote a letter to his constituents explaining the deadline snafus and that he was subsequently elected twice by large margins. "We'll see what the voters think of Mr. LaBruzzo's lavish campaign spending, compared to me not trying to live out of my campaign account," he said.
So what, exactly, are the standards for campaign spending? Political veterans agree they are ill-defined.
"The way the law is written, you're not allowed to use it for personal expenses," says Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), "but you can use money from your campaign funds for activities related to holding office as well as the campaign — and that's a pretty broad range of activities that could be included. It's hard to separate the two."
Frequent legislative critic C.B. Forgotston blames the Legislature for passing a vague law.
"I can't say that it's illegal," says Forgotston of LaBruzzo's expense reports, "but it's certainly an abuse of the system to use campaign funds for things not directly related to a campaign. The law is very general and very vague."
Turning his attention to LaBruzzo's meals, Forgotston said, "I don't think this is going to sit well with his constituents, frankly. I don't think that's what they expect. I think a lot of them are going to wonder, 'How come he hasn't taken me to lunch?'" Forgotston lives in Hammond, but for more than two decades he resided in what is now LaBruzzo's district. "I would like to know who the constituents were," he said. "It's easy to just put words on a paper. It's another thing to back them up."
Ethics Board administrator Kathleen Allen would not comment specifically on LaBruzzo's reports, but she said candidates are required to keep detailed records beyond the minimal information that's contained in the reports.
"If there was ever a question by our office, we would expect someone to be able to provide their records to support that," Allen said. "A candidate is required to keep their records for a period of two years following the last report for the election."
Allen noted that the ethics staff is overwhelmed by the more than 15,000 reports that they receive in a typical election year. The Ethics Board has only two staff members assigned to review the reports, and they usually are able to perform only cursory examinations — and no random audits.
While the shortage of manpower and the vagueness of the law has put more of a burden on ordinary citizens to mine information from the reports, the Internet — and a requirement that most candidates file electronically — has made that task easier, says PAR's Scott.
"The public has the ability to look at a lot of the activities and to make a judgment themselves as to whether these activities are appropriate, whether they are excessive, whether there are conflicts that are created — that's what so important about the disclosure laws," Scott says. "The public can see and make judgments themselves. It isn't just about having a police force enforcing the laws."
Scott noted it's not unusual to see receipts for gas and meals. "It is unusual to see hundreds of them," he said of LaBruzzo's reports. "I don't think there's any question that there's a red flag here. This definitely deserves more scrutiny, and it definitely deserves more scrutiny from the public."