Zurik: Your tax dollars wasted as senator double dips - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

Lee Zurik Investigation: Your tax dollars wasted as senator double dips

Updated:
Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb talks on a cell phone during a committee meeting in April Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb talks on a cell phone during a committee meeting in April

Written by: Lee Zurik, Chief Investigative Reporter - email
Contributor: Manuel Torres, Enterprise Editor
                   NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune - email
Contributor: Tom Wright, Investigative Producer - email

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Chances are, you own a cell phone - you may be reading this story on one right now. The Pew Research Center says 91 percent of adult Americans owned at least one cell phone in 2013. Many people have dropped landline service and now use their cell phones as their primary telecommunications device.

Have you ever claimed to pay your bill twice, from two different spending accounts?

This story would almost be like you paying for your cell phone from money that a friend gave you, then turning around and getting your employer to give you money to cover that same bill.

This story has a few twists, though. It involves your money - taxpayer money and a longtime politician's campaign account.

"You cannot make this stuff up," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak. "This does not certainly pass the smell test at all."

Over the past four years, La. State Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb has spent $19,442.64 from her campaign account on a cell phone. At the same time, the Baton Rouge Democrat has asked the Senate to reimburse her for cell phone expenses - essentially asking taxpayers to write a check to cover a bill that she's already paid.

"She's receiving compensation from taxpayers at the same time that she's dipping into her campaign finance account," notes Chervenak. "That's going to raise lots of red flags."

Take September 2011. Dorsey-Colomb's campaign account shows a cell phone payment of $1081.24.

Now switch over to reimbursement records from the Senate, where we see a cell phone bill, same month, for the same amount of money.

"That's a matter of double dipping," Chervenak says. "She's taking money from the Senate for reimbursement, then taking money out of her campaign account. And so that has to go right into her pocket. I mean, there's nowhere else to go."

All totaled, we've found $16,313.32 of cell phone bills that Dorsey-Colomb has paid through her campaign in four years. At the same time, she also had taxpayers write her a reimbursement check for the same bills.

In an email, Dorsey-Colomb told us, "I represent a poor district and my personal resources are modest. As a result, however, I have had to loan and forgive thousands of dollars to my campaign."

"That's contradicting herself," says attorney and former legislative staffer C.B. Forgotston. "She's a person of modest means, yet she can constantly loan her campaign money. I mean, you can't have it both ways."

The way most lawmakers handle this is to pay their cell phone bills out of their campaign accounts. And when they get a reimbursement check from the legislature, they refund that money to the campaign accounts, referencing the income in their campaign finance reports.

Dorsey-Colomb is saying she's not refunding her campaign account, but simply forgiving loans that she made to the campaign. She wrote, "The campaign fund records them internally as repayments of the debt it owes to me."

"What you've got was just political rhetoric from her campaign consultant," says Forgotston.

We checked with the La. Ethics Board and, according to them, Dorsey-Colomb's response seems to be impossible. She has not noted in any campaign report that these payments went to write off any of her loans.

"She's not indicating in her campaign finance report that this money is going to forgive her loans," Chervenak observes. "It's clear that she took the money from the Senate for that cell phone bill, and charged her campaign finance account for that cell phone as well."

The board told us she's hasn't forgiven any debt over the past three years. In fact, last year she paid herself back some money from a loan - $1,822. And during the past few years, ethics officials say Dorsey-Colomb only has about $2,000 in outstanding debt to herself. That's not nearly enough money to cover the $16,000 of questionable cell phone payments.

Chervenak tells us, "Trying to explain away the fact that you're receiving taxpayer money to pay your bill and then taking another amount of money out of your campaign finance account to pay that same bill... there's some clear violations there."

Cell phones weren't the only place we found duplicate payments. We found 17 other examples of payments from her campaign account matching reimbursements of taxpayer money.

We found 12 reimbursements from the Senate for Office Depot purchases that matched payments made out of her campaign account.

Here's another example. In August 2010, the Senate reimbursed Dorsey-Colomb for four nights at the Charleston Place Hotel in South Carolina. Records show Dorsey-Colomb's campaign paid the same bill for that hotel stay.

We asked Dorsey-Colomb for an on-camera interview. She declined, writing, "My statement is complete and includes all the facts that anyone could reasonably want to know. I just wouldn't have anything more to add."

But Chervenak says he has many more questions for this long-time senator.

"It's just so blatant in terms of what you see with the Senate reimbursement and the campaign finance reimbursement for that same bill," he says. "I don't think there's any way to explain it away, other than the fact that you double dipped. Where did that money go?"

Dorsey-Colomb has even more questionable spending out of her campaign account. In the past four years, she's reimbursed herself thousands of dollars of campaign money. We don't know why, though - her campaign report only notes those expenditures as reimbursement receipts.

All totaled, Dorsey-Colomb has paid herself more than $15,000 through those ill-described reimbursements.

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