After six years of blogging about Louisiana and, particularly, politics and government in Central Louisiana, this story takes the cake; it is, without question, the biggest news I have ever had the opportunity to exclusively report. It involves the former Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, the current Louisiana Secretary of State, a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate for Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, the former and now incoming Sheriff of Rapides Parish, current and former members of the Rapides Parish Police Jury, two members of the Alexandria City Council, a member of the Rapides Parish School Board, and a former candidate for Alexandria Mayor, and it exposes the ugly underbelly of Louisiana politics.
Let me be clear: I am not accusing anyone of committing a crime or an ethics violation. I’ll leave that up to the folks who are paid to make those determinations. And soon, I hope they will, because, at the very least, this diminishes the integrity of our election process.
I’ll start at the beginning.
The political action committee Revitalizing Our Community (or ROC) was established on March 17, 2010 by former Rapides Parish Police Juror Joe Fuller and current Rapides Parish Police Juror Oliver Overton.
Ostensibly, ROC was concerned with raising awareness for the issues that faced the residents of inner-city Alexandria. But for political watchers, such as myself, its actual aims quickly became abundantly clear: ROC was really created to influence the election for Alexandria Mayor. Shortly after it was formed, ROC endorsed a candidate, Von Jennings. Ms. Jennings, in the end, barely mustered 8% of the vote, but there is at least some consolation for her: Today, Von Jennings is the Treasurer of Revitalizing Our Community.
According to ROC’s financial disclosure statements, from its inception, it has been the beneficiary of the largesse of Charlie Dewitt, the former speaker of the Louisiana House.
Dewitt has given thousands and thousands of dollars to help prop up ROC, both through his mothballed campaign fund and through his businesses. Dewitt’s first contributions were received in September of 2010. You’ll also notice contributions from Myron Lawson and Butch Gautreaux; both of them were reimbursed completely for their donations.
And Dewitt’s most recent contribution was on November 15, 2011, a contribution that was dwarfed by the campaign for Sheriff William Earl Hilton:
ROC also lists $9,500 in contributions from Dewitt on October of 2011, right next to big checks from Tom Schedler, Rick Gallot, and Billy Nungesser.
I want to be completely clear: I have absolutely no reason to believe that these political campaigns did anything illegal or improper. But at the very least, it should raise some suspicions: Why are these campaigns donating thousands and thousands of dollars to a small and relatively unknown political action committee in Alexandria? And why are these donations only occurring a week or two before the election? How is this political action committee spending these donations?
PACs are not allowed to coordinate with any campaign. They can endorse candidates, but they’re not supposed to work for their campaigns. And usually, this means that PACs spend money on “uncoordinated” direct mail, TV and radio advertisements, and social media. I recognize the line is fuzzy, but the basic rule is: You can’t spend PAC money to staff your campaign.
I can’t know what these campaigns thought they were going to receive in exchange for a large donation to Revitalizing Our Community, but now, we all know what ROC spent their money on. And it wasn’t on TV or radio or even direct mail.
Despite the tens of thousands of dollars ROC has raised during the last two years, according to its most recent disclosure report, which was filed on February 15, 2012 and signed by its new Chairman Michael Caffery and its Treasurer Von Jennings, ROC ended 2011 — stunningly– with a NEGATIVE balance of $19,806.47. (To be clear, ROC should still be flush with cash, if the reporting on their overall contributions is accurate, and this should raise even more suspicion).
How could this possibly be? Where, on earth, did all of that money go?
Their most recent annual report, which was signed by Treasurer Von Jennings, provides the answers, and they’re shocking. ROC spent every last dime it had and more on “campaign workers,” thousands and thousands of dollars to dozens of people, including several elected officials. For example:
Rapides Parish School Board member Janet Dixon, the wife of Louisiana State Representative Herbert Dixon, made $1,250 as a “campaign worker.”
And, incidentally, Ms. Dixon wasn’t the only Dixon on the list, but I’ll let others sort through that.
Alexandria City Councilwoman Mitzi Gibson collected a cool $250 for her efforts:
Another Alexandria Councilman, Roosevelt Johnson, raked in even more:
Police Juror Oliver Overton made $100, though, to be fair, he’d donated $250 earlier, so it was essentially a refund:
Police Juror Theodore Fountaine made out a little better. He didn’t donate anything, but he was paid $250 as a campaign worker:
According to previous reporting, Von Jennings, the PAC’s treasurer and current candidate for Alexandria City Council, was also paid $500 as a “campaign worker.”
Again, ROC not only doled out large one-time checks to elected officials and their family members, it paid dozens and dozens of other people as well, and in so doing, it sunk itself into insolvency. Perhaps this is nothing more than reckless irresponsibility, the way “things are always done.” But in reading and rereading these reports, I can’t help but feel like this is simply a bald-faced exploitation of campaign finance laws.
What were all of these people doing for ROC? Why were they being paid hundreds of dollars as “campaign workers”? What campaign were they working on? It’s not unusual for campaigns to pay people to help get out the vote on election day, but it’s also not necessarily ideal: An effective campaign would much rather rely on motivated volunteers than people only interested in collecting a check for their participation in our democracy.
That said, ROC is not and has never been a “campaign;” it a PAC that is prohibited, by law, from colluding and coordinating with any campaign. Yet by any objective standard, it now certainly appears as if ROC was established as a shell organization with the hope of attracting thousands of dollars from politicians or those seeking political office in order so that it could then turn around and enrich dozens of people, most of whom are politically-connected. It could sink itself into debt or insolvency; it could keep those unaccountable “campaign workers” off of any individual campaign books. With all due respect to Sheriff William Earl Hilton’s campaign, what did they expect in return for their $5,000 contribution? Campaign workers? That’d be illegal.
To me, this is a poor reflection of American democracy; this is about gaming the political system, milking campaigns for as much as they can give and then doling the proceeds in exchange for votes.
But there’s another, even larger problem here: ROC claims its “funds-on-hand” is negative $19,806.47. The PAC has reported at least $60,000 in contributions over the last 23 months, yet it’s disclosed significantly less than that as expenditures. And somehow, it’s still nearly $20,000 short on funds. The numbers don’t add up; it definitely appears as if there are significant expenses that ROC has, thus far, kept off-the-books and undisclosed.
One final thing: In fairness, ROC has spent money on direct mail, once. It was little over $5,600, nearly two years ago. With a company called Dixon Solutions, which I’m sure is just completely coincidental, just another Dixon (also originally from Alexandria, by the way) who made thousands from ROC: