Lawsuit claims LPB/CABL's US Senate debate is 'pay to play'

Lawsuit claims LPB/CABL's US Senate debate is 'pay to play'
Troy Hebert (Source: WAFB)
Troy Hebert (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A decision in a case regarding which candidates can participate in a televised debate for Louisiana's U.S. Senate seat could come as early as Thursday.

After a day of testimony about the influence money plays in politics, the judged recessed the court until Thursday morning.

Troy Hebert, an independent Senate candidate and the former head of Louisiana's Alcohol and Tobacco Control, said he believes the criteria to participate in the debate on October 18 are unfair.

Hebert filed a suit against Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL). The two organizations are working together to organize the forum.

"This forum's criteria will use taxpayer money to promote the rich candidates and shut out the poor candidates," Hebert indicated in his suit.

According to a press release by LPB and CABL, in order to participate, candidates must:

  • Establish a campaign committee with a treasurer and campaign staff, and filed campaign finance reporters with the Federal Election Commission prior to the debate
  • Poll at least 5 percent in a nonpartisan or news media poll recognized by CABL released after qualifying
  • Raise at least $1 million in campaign funds prior to the debate

Hebert does not meet the last two criteria. He polled at 0.8 percent in a recent poll conducted by Southern Media & Opinion Research.

However, he focused much of his attention on that third rule, saying it creates a scenario of "pay to play" and is symbolic of his belief that money has too much influence on politics.

Further, he said that a public entity – LPB – should not be allowed to put dollar requirements on their candidate forums.

"They can be at 51 percent, but they don't have a million dollars. So, therefore, are they not a serious candidate," Hebert said. "51 percent of the people say they want to vote for them, the only thing that's preventing them is the million dollars."

Barry Erwin, who heads CABL, defended the rules saying they are reasonable for a statewide race for a national office. He said CABL decided on the criteria aim to prove that a candidate is serious and has public support.

"The fact of the matter is $1 million is a very low bar for moving from a primary into a run-off. We needed some sort of money criteria because we've always had that. It's part of showing the public support, a part of showing a seriousness of purpose," Erwin said.

LPB's president, Beth Courtney, meanwhile said that having the rules in place allows for a fruitful conversation during the primary debate. She indicated that having all 24 candidates on the ballot participate in the debate would be unwieldy.

"If you had too many people, it would impede any meaningful conversation about significant issues," Courtney said.

Hebert also said he believes CABL set the financial requirement at $1 million because that could block candidate David Duke from participating in the debate. If that is the case, he said, the other candidates eliminated were "collateral damage."

"Where did the $1 million come from? Did it just come out of the air? Could it have been $500,000? Could it have been $2 million?" Hebert said.

Erwin objected to that assertion that Duke was the deciding factor, saying they had been planning to increase the monetary requirement this year. It had previously been $250,000.

"It was not to prevent David Duke from participating in the forum that we changed our criteria," Erwin said at the stand.

Candidates Charles Marsala and Beryl Billiot also did not qualify for the debate and are filing their own suits against the organizations.

Judge Timothy Kelley is hearing the case in the 19th Judicial District courthouse. Kelley said he can either order that the debate be canceled or that Hebert be included.

Raycom Media, which owns WAFB, will be airing a senate debate on November 2. There is no fundraising requirement for candidates to participate, though they do need to be polling at 5 percent in a poll commissioned by Raycom. Candidates also must be officially qualified to run, have made a public announcement of their intention to run, have a campaign committee, and also have a campaign headquarters and staff.

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