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The Puppet Masters 

Many of the new Republican lawmakers elected this year will be beholden to a deep-pocketed, win-at-any-cost group that has friends in high places and money to burn.

John Diez is swamped. He's reviewing direct mail pieces that lambast Democrats and radio scripts that demonize liberals. His phones are ringing off the hook, creating a political ambience that is unmistakable. It's an election year, and the polls open in just over a week. Everyone, from reporters to campaign managers, wants to know the skinny on the House race down in Houma or the Senate race in Westwego. And Diez has the answers, although he isn't sharing. 'It's like broadcasting your war strategy," he says. 'Everybody wants to know, but it's not going to happen." As executive director of the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM), Diez is the head of a well-funded operation that has one goal in mind: helping the GOP capture more seats in the state Legislature than Democrats do. To be certain, the feat would be astonishing; you would have to look back before Reconstruction to find Dems on the outs in the Louisiana House and Senate. By most accounts and tallies, a Republican takeover is unlikely to happen this year, too, despite the fanciful predictions of recent months. But Diez and the folks behind the curtain at LCRM do have Republicans positioned to pick up more seats in the lower chamber, which will be enough to block certain bills and motions.

The group has raised more than $1 million for its mission, funded largely by the state's conservative cream. Many donors, like Bob Perry of Houston, are forking over $100,000 in lump sums. Perry is best known for partly footing the bill on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks during the 2004 presidential race. Diez has taken lumps for the link, but rightly argues that Democrats also have seedy ties if one digs deep enough. He also can point to a plethora of similar donations worth their respect in gold, like $75,000 from New Orleans philanthropist Phyllis Taylor and $50,000 from the Shaw Group. Even John Georges, a businessman from Metairie who switched from the GOP to independent to run for governor this year, ponied up $75,000.

And then there are the relationships LCRM is quick to dissolve. It received $1,000 last week from Greenberg-Traurig, which formerly employed the convicted Jack Abramoff as a lobbyist. Furthermore, this is the same PAC that gave nearly $13,000 to the equally slimy Congressman Bob Ney. The Ohio Republican chose not to seek re-election last year following a guilty plea to charges of conspiracy and making false statements in relation to Abramoff's Indian-lobbying scandal. After being told of the donation, Diez says it was mailed back. 'We're not keeping that donation," he says.

But there are certain checks that are staying the bank. The GEO Group PAC of Florida gifted LCRM at least $25,000 during June and August. According to the Center for Political Accountability, a good-government group in Washington, D.C., GEO, formerly Wackenhut Corrections, is a world leader in privatized correctional and detention management. In an analysis of GEO, the watchdog estimates that the PAC, or an extension of it, donated roughly $880,000 in 19 states during the 2004 and 2002 elections. 'The company is a heavy giver in states in which it operates," the report says.

What, if anything, does GEO expect in return? 'When we solicit donations, we tell people that we are recruiting conservatives and that there's a spending problem in Louisiana," Diez says. 'They never offer "X' amount of money in exchange for us pushing a certain agenda. There has never been a dialogue like that."

Late last month, LCRM likewise received a $100,000 contribution from a group called the American Justice Partnership, a Michigan-based front-group for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). While critics contend NAM uses the partnership to politically funnel money, NAM argues it was merely set up to bolster legal reform on the state level. According to The Washington Post, Bernie Marcus, cofounder of Home Depot, is one of the founders of the American Justice Partnership. A recent CBS news report also labeled Marcus one of the top 'bundlers" in the nation, meaning a person who collects money from various sources and makes a lump payment in his own name on their behalf to a political action committee. In short, bundlers get rid of that pesky paper trail.

Diez says the partnership is perfect for LCRM because the organization wants to make an impact on the state level and LCRM's sole mission is dedicated to the Legislature. 'What's so questionable about that donation?" Diez asks.

In 2006, the Justice Partnership funded a 527-like organization (meaning not regulated by the feds) in a state court race in Georgia and contributed to similar activities in New York, Oregon and Illinois. Why then is the partnership channeling money to LCRM? Diez responds that the curiosities are more about the process than the players, a statement not totally off base considering the flimsy regulations Congress has placed on political fundraising.

Not surprisingly, Diez revealed very little else about what might happen during the week leading up the Oct. 20 primary. According to the most recent campaign finance report on record with the state, LCRM had more than $811,000 available to spend heading into the final stretch. If you review every campaign finance report filed by LCRM this year, you'll find a great deal of direct-mail costs, strategy fees, polling and research. But there are no production expenditures or media buys, and actual spending on candidates has been minimal.

LCRM made a $5,000 contribution to the Louisiana Republican Party in January, but the big winner thus far has been Rep. Jim Morris, who benefited from more than $14,000 during a spring special election to fill a seat in Oil City. Other than that, LCRM has targeted its spending this year to the following candidates: J.C. Warren of Welsh, $570; Michael McMyne of Kenner, $3,500; Al Carter of Thibodaux, $5,000; Kirby Roy of Avoyelles Parish, $3,400; Anthony Ligi of Metairie, $1,500; Joe Harrison of Napoleonville, $3,300; and Jonathan Perry of Kaplan, $3,300.

Diez says the group stayed out of certain races where there was more than one Republican, but that will change in the runoffs. There are also big checks going out this week that won't be recorded until later finance reports. That means it's all about Election Day for LCRM. The group is trying to succeed in an area where Democrats have traditionally dominated: Get Out the Vote. Parties, free give-aways, buses, Mardi Gras floats and paid block captains have all been used by Dems in the past to turn out their base. Republicans are looking to create a similar system.

Presently, LCRM is spending about $20,000 per month with the New Orleans-based GCR and Associates for 'computer database services." Earlier this year, it also dropped an additional $90,000 for software development. It's worth noting the GCR holds several contracts with the state and is at least a minor player on the recovery circuit. But the database system the company is developing may change the way Republicans win elections for some time. Diez admits that's where all the money has been going, and its impact on the race shouldn't be underestimated.

'We're building a sophisticated modeling process," Diez says. 'This is all being geared toward Election Day. I think you're going to find that our reports from the final week will be more detailed than anything else you've seen from us. That's when you'll see a lot of action."

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

SIDEBAR: Follow the Bling

The Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority has raised more than $1 million to help elect more conservatives to the state Legislature. The high-profile donors include:

Bob Perry, Houston, Texas: $100,000

Gary Chouest, C-Logistics, Galliano: $100,000

Gray and Company, Metairie: $100,000

Joseph C. Canizaro, First Bank and Trust, New Orleans: $75,000

Boysie Bollinger, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockport: $75,000

Jim Bernhard, The Shaw Group, Baton Rouge: $50,000

Mockler Beverage, Baton Rouge: $75,000

Michael Polito, MAPP Construction, Baton Rouge: $75,000

Thomas H. Turner, Turner Industries, Baton Rouge: $50,000

Former Baton Rouge Mayor Bobby Simpson: $5,000

Former Congressman Bob Livingston: $1,250

Source: Louisiana Board of Ethics

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