Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pay to Play the GOP Way

The Sunday edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate pulls back the curtain on the still legal, still ethical form of pay to play as practiced by Governor Bobby Jindal and his Republican patrons.

The subject is the brazen $15 million payoff that Louisiana taxpayers will make to GOP heavy hitter Gary Chouest. Chouest, his family and companies gave more than $134,000 to Republican causes in the recent state election cycle. It took Jindal only two months — had to get that ethics special session out of the way — to pay back Chouest's largess.

Here's how the story begins:
The first business to benefit from state economic development aid under Gov. Bobby Jindal is run by a man whose family and businesses donated at least $135,250 to the governor’s campaign and local Republican Party causes during the past year.

Jindal introduced the donor — Gary Chouest, of Galliano — as a leader of Louisiana business in the same March 9 speech when the governor proclaimed before the Legislature that the state’s political culture had moved beyond “who you know” motivations.

Jindal used part of the state’s $1.1 billion surplus to put $10 million in a Terrebonne Parish port expansion. Jindal also gave an additional $4 million grant to the project.

The state Legislature approved both proposals earlier this month.

The taxpayer dollars help Chouest’s privately owned companies expand a state-of-the-art shipbuilding facility and to upgrade the port where the new plant is located.
Yes, it will create jobs, but it fails to pass Jindal's own test for ethical conduct as laid out during his campaign. Louisiana, candidate Jindal was fond of saying, cannot afford even the hint of corruption.

Looks like that was just for public consumption. Governor Jindal has apparently re-calibrated his ethics standard a bit.

Chouest, The Advocate points out, ran circles around Louisiana campaign finance laws in making those contributions to Jindal and other Republican causes:
But, it’s the connection between public investment and the way the Chouest family made private political contributions that sparked criticism.

State law limits contributions by individuals and corporations to $5,000 per candidate per campaign.

In a practice often called “bundling,” a single businessman gives the maximum $5,000 in the names of a number of different entities he controls.

Chouest gave $5,000 on May 18, as did other family members, according to the financial disclosures submitted to the Louisiana Board of Ethics by Jindal’s campaign.

Additionally, companies in which Chouest is listed as a president or chief executive officer on corporate records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, also donated the maximum $5,000 amount to the Jindal gubernatorial campaign.

Chouest’s companies further donated to the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority and the Republican Party of Louisiana.

Both organizations contributed to Jindal’s campaign and provided mailings of campaign literature that personally attacked Jindal’s opponents.

The Chouest-related contributions that could be tracked through public records totaled at least $135,250.
This is a practice that is rampant in Louisiana politics. Again, The Advocate:
About one-third of Jindal’s $14.5 million campaign war chest came from bundling, according to the Ethics Board disclosures.

Twenty-five businessmen gave donations in excess of $20,000 through different corporations to Jindal’s 2007 campaign effort alone, plus another $20,000 or more to state Republican Party efforts.

Jindal's recent Ethics Extravaganza special session of the Legislature did absolutely nothing to rein in the practice of bundling. It's apparent why he wouldn't touch a system that has worked so well for him and his Republican cohorts. So stark a break in Jindal's ethics effort demonstrates the partisan nature of the effort as well. Republican funding sources can continue to bankroll elections unmolested in the new squeaky-clean era of Jindal.

In short, if they're not touching the dough, the ethics game is all for show. Again, The Advocate story has quotes laying out the bigger picture:
Wendell G. Lindsay Jr., the Baton Rouge lawyer who heads the state’s branch of Common Cause, said bundling donations, such as Chouest’s, creates the appearance that the elected official is beholden to his contributor.

“Our system is legalized bribery,” Lindsay said.

On a national level, the self-styled citizens lobby is working to end bundling. In Louisiana, the group backed Senate Bill 31 and House Bill 42, which would have required identifying donors’ employers on contributions of $250 or more.

Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer, argued for doing away with bundling in Louisiana when he testified before Jindal’s transition committee that developed ethics legislation.

“This is the quid pro quo,” Stonecipher said of the link between Chouest and Jindal. “I believe that this is a smoking gun, and to hear Jindal say, ‘I’m going to follow the law’ without addressing campaign finance bundling, well, that’s a way to game the system for your own advantage.”
The Advocate article also points out that Jindal's ethics transition task force looked at campaign finance reform, but dropped it because it was too hard. The degree of difficulty might have had something to do with the fact that there were bundlers on the ethics task force who were not interested in having their own ability to influence elections limited.

The mainstream media is catching on to the Jindal ethics scam. Word has it that there will by money for other GOP heavy hitters coming via the budget in the upcoming regular session of the Legislature.

Now that the pattern has been recognized, it will be interesting to see how Team Jindal resorts to delivering the goods to their political friends.

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