Louisiana school board candidate may have breached state campaign law

Posted on: November 3rd, 2011 by Mikhail Zinshteyn 4 Comments

Incumbent Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) candidate Chas Roemer appears to have violated state campaign law by accepting a $20,000 donation from a pro-business Political Action Committee.

A review of state financial reports by The American Independent found that East PAC, one of the four “Big PACs” affiliated with The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), an organization claiming to promote the“free-enterprise system,” made the donation to Roemer on Monday.

Image from the Louisiana Department of Education

Alainna Giacone, communications director for the Louisiana Board of Ethics, the body that regulates election campaign finance, told TAI: “The campaign finance chart limits the amount Big PACs contribute per election to no more than $10,000.”

The contributions were made ahead of November 19 run-off elections pitting Roemer against Donald Songy, a former educator and parish superintendent. The election results will determine whether Gov. Bobby Jindal will enjoy a “pro-reform” majority on the school boards sympathetic to expanding charter schools and weakening teacher tenure rules.

Giacone said The Board of Ethics will likely not take up the issue until December during its monthly meeting.

“Once we receive notice of a report for a possible violation, then it will be put on the docket,” she said. Giacone pointed to state laws indicating that the candidate and the PAC can face anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 in fines for the violation.

Roemer, the son of former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, narrowly missed earning the majority vote in an Oct. 22 election that would have resulted in his outright taking the BESE seat — instead receiving 45 percent of the vote. Songy finished second with 28 percent.

While Roemer’s fundraising far exceeded that of his opponents in the BESE seat election, as previously reported by TAI, his supporters are aggressively raising money on his behalf.

A Louisiana Republican group affiliated with Gov. Bobby Jindal is asking supporters to help raise $200,000 for the Roemer’s reelection.

Friends of Bobby Jindal circulated an e-mail on Wednesday that read, in part:

“This is a must win race.  We will need to raise $200k quickly to wage a strong campaign for Chas [Roemer] and provide him the support he needs to win election in 4 weeks.  Winning this last BESE race will give us a pro-reform majority on the BESE board, giving the Governor and strong partner in reforming our education system so every child can attend a good school and receive a great education.”

An e-mail attachment directs users to the 2011 Republican Victory Fund donation page. Contribution requests range from $5,000 to $100,000. Those limits are defined by state laws that say individuals can contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate per election — or up to $100,000 to a Political Action Committees (PACs) over a four-year period.

Friends of Bobby Jindal, however, is not a registered PAC. It cannot raise money but does not violate state laws soliciting on behalf of groups like The Republican Victory Fund.

On a comprehensive campaign finance filing dated October 11, Roemer’s records show he collected $117,250 to Songy’s $965.

Chris Sommers, Director of the Louisiana Campaign Finance Division within the Louisiana Board of Ethics, told The American Independent, “Certainly the Republican Party can spend unlimited amounts of money; however, just from what I have seen, solicitations aren’t often made in this way.”

Filings after October 11 show Roemer added an additional $16,149.48 from state Republican Party contributions, plus an additional $53,500.

Songy, meanwhile has added $5,000 to his campaign purse strings following donations from a local SEIU chapter and the Louisiana affiliate of the National Education Association. The available records on Songy indicate his campaign has raised $13,830.00. Roemer’s earnings total $222,125.50

Yet state campaign finance records also show Roemer has spent less than $25,000 since January of 2010 on his reelection effort. In the same period, Songy spent just over $6,400 on campaign expenses.

“Customarily, there isn’t a lot of money spent on these elections,” Sommers said, referring to BESE seats. “There is definitely more financial activity compared to before in connection with those races.”

Many corporate interests have backed Roemer.

LABI, made up of four regional PACs (West PACEast PACNorth PAC, and South PAC) that each gave Roemer  $10,000, also through East Pac contributed an additional $20,000 on Monday. The state Republican Party gave nearly $34,000. While Gov. Jindal, who needs a two-thirds majority in BESE to have his choice for state superintendent of public schools appointed, donated to Roemer $5,000 through his campaign committee. His father Buddy Roemer has donated $10,000, spaced over the two campaign periods.

Roemer’s membership on BESE has been a source of rancor for groups opposing his unabated support for charter schools. Roemer’s sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS). The group advocates for expanding charter schools in the state and loosening restrictions on teacher tenure. In 2008, the state’s top ethics committee ruled Caroline Roemer cannot appear before BESE, but LAPCS is not restricted. Chas Roemer was not asked to recuse himself from hearings when LAPCS is present, though sections 1112 and 1120 of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics indicate that he should.

A look at BESE meeting minutes in January of 2011 reveals (PDF) Chas Roemer voted on renewing the charters of multiple charter schools (Type 5 Charter Schools) that are members of the charter school association his sister leads. Some of those include the McDonogh schools, which belong to the KIPP and Algiers charter school networks.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,