Lee Zurik Investigation: Will Ethics Board, feds tackle legislative vets?

Published: May. 6, 2014 at 9:58 PM CDT|Updated: May. 7, 2014 at 2:00 AM CDT
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Written by: Lee Zurik, Chief Investigative Reporter - email
Contributor: Manuel Torres, Enterprise Editor, Times-Picayune - email
Contributor: Tom Wright, Investigative Producer - email

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A corruption watchdog says the La. Ethics Board needs to investigate questions raised in our latest "Louisiana Purchased" reports, focusing on two powerful state senators.

Combined, they've served 62 years in the state legislature. Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb was elected 20 years ago to the state House of Representatives, shortly after Bill Clinton started his first term as president. John Alario became a lawmaker when Richard Nixon was in the White House, back in 1972.

Last week, we raised serious questions for the two long-time legislators. And the head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission says he'd be shocked if the Ethics Board didn't have those same questions, too. He expects them to launch a probe.

"I certainly think that, if this doesn't rise to the level, I don't know what their standards are for this," says MCC president Rafael Goyeneche.

Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino says these findings might also spark the interest of other investigators.

"The Ethics Board has got to look at this," Ciolino says, "and I would be surprised if federal authorities wouldn't look at it as well."

Our story on Senate President John Alario showed how more than $20,000 of campaign spending could have been misreported by Alario on his campaign finance reports. Alario claimed tens of thousands of dollars of spending at Audubon Golf Club and on LSU tickets. But a review of Audubon and LSU records showed that what Alario paid them did not match up with what he claimed he paid on his campaign reports.

"To violate the campaign finance laws doesn't require a showing of fraudulent intent, even if it's an innocent mistake," says Ciolino. "It's still a mistake, still potentially a violation of state law. Where the real problem can come in for some public officials is if the conduct is so pervasive and so repetitive that it starts looking like more than a simple mistake. And that's when the federal government, the FBI, usually would get involved with a full-blown criminal investigation."

The question becomes whether there are any other problems on Alario's reports. We were only able to review spending with two public entities. But most of Alario's campaign spending is with private organizations. We're unable to get records from them to verify the accuracy in Alario's campaign reports.

"These are allegations of public corruption, of misuse of campaign funds and false reports to campaign finance authorities," Ciolino tells us. "Those are serious allegations and, if proven, serious misconduct.

Former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle went to prison for falsifying campaign reports. Legal analysts say, in any case like this, it comes down to whether the public official had an intent to defraud.

Regardless, Alario still has at least $20,000 of undocumented, unexplained expenditures. Where did that money go?

"The only person that can answer that is Mr. Alario," says Goyeneche.

That accounting is Alario's professional background "makes it even more unacceptable," Goyeneche tells us. "You're having a professional accountant that can't even accurately fill out a financial disclosure form. And, you know, if he's that sloppy with campaign finances, what's he doing with the laws that he's helping write and pass for the people of Louisiana?"

We also showed how Sen. Dorsey-Colomb of Baton Rouge paid for cell phone bills out of her campaign account, then sought reimbursement for those same bills from the Senate - from taxpayer money.

Dorsey-Colomb told us she kept the reimbursement money from the Senate, instead of giving it back to her campaign, because she was forgiving debt that the campaign owed her personally. But there's no record of those write-offs in her campaign documents.

Ciolino says, "There's got to be a paper trail, not an explanation afterwards. And the paper trail here seems to be non-existent."

In fact, the Ethics Board says Dorsey-Colomb didn't even have enough debt to forgive to cover the more than $16,000 of cell phone payments.

Goyeneche says, with weak laws and enforcement, Louisiana's campaign finance system is ripe for abuse. He says it's up to the Ethics Board to decide if these long-time public servants crossed the legal line.

"This is an area that has been, I think, a historical cesspool, as far as the potential for corrupting public officials and channeling campaign funds for personal benefits, for people that were supposed to be there to serve and protect the public," Goyeneche says.

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