Louisiana attorney general blocked millions in grant money awarded to parish clerks

GOP lawmakers push bill to make private grants illegal

In this Jan. 22 file photo from Washington, D.C., Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (at the microphone) joins Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill (l) and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson at a press conference to discuss the impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, but Rep. Ivey was not at Wednesday’s House and Governmental Affairs Committee. During that meeting, his name was incorrectly displayed at another lawmaker’s seat on the dais.

Parishes across Louisiana, including those devastated by Hurricane Laura, were forced to reject millions in grant money from a nonprofit tech organization after Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry told the officials it was illegal for them to use grant money on election expenses. Although Landry insists accepting the money is already illegal, GOP lawmakers are now pushing a bill to “clarify” that it is.

House Bill 51, authored by Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, passed the House and Governmental Affairs Committee in a 7-5 vote Wednesday after lengthy debate that grew heated at times.

The controversy stems from a nationwide grant program by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonpartisan nonprofit that has received funding by some of America’s staple corporations and charitable organizations, including Google, Facebook, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Knight Foundation. On Sept. 1, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan gave $250 million to the program, making the grant available to virtually every local government in the country.

The grants are offered to cover election-related expenses such as sanitization, personal protective equipment, tents at polling locations, polling signage and any other costs related to holding an election. So far, CTCL has given money to counties and municipalities in Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.  

When Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin learned about the program, he checked into it, and then held a conference call with all the parish clerks and voter registrars, in which he urged them all to apply. 

When the attorney general got wind of the program, however, he unleashed the power of his office against the clerks and the nonprofit. Landry told the clerks to halt their applications and not accept any money, and then he told them to lawyer up because his office would not represent them, according to testimony at Wednesday’s committee meeting. 

Landry, who has long been at odds with Google and Facebook for having what he perceives as left-leaning agendas, later filed a lawsuit against CTCL in St. Martin Parish, claiming the organization targeted specific areas of the state into which to pump money for “an inherently insidious and corrupting effect.”

The lawsuit does not say exactly what the “corrupting effect” was that CTCL allegedly had in mind with its “financial contribution scheme.”

The same non-specific allegations came from Rep. Miguez when he presented his bill to the committee Wednesday. HB 51 is a short and simple bill that reads:

“When an election is held during a state of emergency declared by the governor, no state or local official, including but not limited to a registrar of voters or a clerk of court, or agency responsible for conducting elections shall solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from individuals or profit or nonprofit corporations, for the purpose of funding election related expenses.”

Miguez said the spirit of HB 51 is to “preserve the integrity of elections” by prohibiting private money from tainting the voting process. Miguez claimed CTCL was illegally “targeting” certain parishes to receive grant money for supposed political reasons. 

Assistant Attorney General Angelique Freel accompanied Miguez to support the legislation, but under questioning by committee members regarding the attorney general’s actions to halt much-needed grant money, the pair couldn’t explain why something they insist is illegal needs to be outlawed by the Louisiana Legislature. 

“We know it’s illegal,” Freel said in response.

“Then why do you need a new law saying that it’s illegal?” Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, said.

Both Miguez and Freel claimed HB 51’s purpose is to “clarify existing law,” but several Democratic lawmakers accused the pair of trying to stretch interpretations of existing law to fit a conservative agenda. 

Freel said the existing laws under Title 18, Sections 1400.1 to 1400.8 of the state’s election code state that elections shall be funded by the Louisiana Legislature and not private donors.

DID LANDRY THREATEN PARISH CLERKS?

The committee heard a completely different story when it called on Debbie Hudnall, the executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, she said the attorney general’s office threatened the parish clerks into rejecting the millions that CTCL was offering.

“The clerks were excited,” Hudnall said, recalling the conference call with Secretary Ardoin when they first learned of the grant. 

She said the first question one of the clerks on the phone call asked was “Is it legal?” Hudnall said Ardoin told them he had already confirmed that it was indeed legal.

Hudnall told the committee that CTCL did not target specific areas of the state and had no agendas that she could see. All parishes were invited to apply, she said.

“I can assure you that no clerk would have wanted to accept any grant if they thought strings were attached,” Hudnall said. As part of the application, each clerk had to work out a budget to determine what their parish needed. Grants were then awarded to specific parishes at amounts based on need, Hudnall said.

Everything froze, however, when Landry got involved. The attorney general told the clerks he would not represent them and advised them to get their own lawyers. “Which we did,” Hudnall said, adding that their independent legal counsel advised them the grant was not illegal.

She said Landry’s office then started sending letters and emails to the clerks threatening them with a court battle and legal fees if they didn’t stop seeking grant money.

“It felt threatening to the clerks,” Hudnall said.

Landry’s office denied making any threats. 

“That is not true,” spokesperson Cory Dennis said in an email. “As AAG Freel testified, we are statutory counsel for Registrars of Voters and the Parish Board of Election Supervisors. We were contacted by several ROVs and Clerks of Court who were concerned about the legality of the grant, and our office provided them with information. This fulfilled our duty to advise them on the law.”

The Ascension Parish clerk received an award notice of $114,000 from the program but turned it down out of fear from Landry’s threats, Hudnall said. 

Thirteen other parishes were slated to receive more than a half-million each. The money could have helped areas such as Calcasieu Parish, which is still recovering from Hurricane Laura and trying to establish a single voting precinct to handle 20,000 voters. 

In a separate debacle, Attorney General Landry issued a formal opinion claiming Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 restrictions were illegal. Several bar owners then sued the governor, using Landry’s opinion to try to support their case, but both a state judge and federal judges ruled against them and found the restrictions were indeed legal.

Then, in another ruling against Landry, a federal judge said the attorney general invited chaos and confusion into the COVID-19 voting laws when he wrote a letter to the Tangipahoa Registrar of Voters attempting to clarify the eligibility requirements for absentee ballots (see pp. 31-32, Harding v. Edwards).

WHAT DOES EXISTING LAW SAY?

As Freel told the committee, state laws around election costs are found under Title 18, Sections 1400.1 through 1400.8. A review of those statutes found that the secretary of state is responsible for the cost of elections that are solely gubernatorial or congressional, but the laws say nothing about how or from where local governments can raise money to pay for elections that include local candidates. The first section states:

The cost of ballots and election materials used in gubernatorial and congressional elections, whether or not a gubernatorial or congressional candidate appears on the ballot, shall be paid by the state from funds appropriated to the secretary of state for that purpose, except that when a local or municipal candidate or a local bond, debt, tax, proposition, or question also appears on the ballot, the state shall be required to pay one-half of the cost of ballots and election materials.

Because the upcoming Nov. 3 election includes local candidates, the state is only responsible for paying one-half the cost of the election. Those statutes also don’t prohibit the state from appropriating grant money for elections, New Orleans attorney Mauricio Sierra said. Sierra pointed out there could also be an issue of state overreach. 

“There’s also the question of whether the state is overreaching in telling a parish how it can or can’t raise money to pay for the parish’s share of the bill,” Sierra said.

Although HB 51 may indeed be a clarification of law, is the spirit of the bill truly, as Rep. Miguez said, to protect the integrity of Louisiana’s elections? One of the committee members devised a way to find out.

At one point Duplessis offered an amendment to the bill that would add the secretary of state, who is a Republican, to the list of officials that wouldn’t be allowed to accept private grants or donations to pay for elections. If the spirit of the bill is truly to protect the integrity of elections, Duplessis said, then the GOP shouldn’t have a problem with that amendment.

But Republicans on the committee objected and voted down that amendment, 7-5.  

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