Louisiana officials use campaign cash to buy LSU, Saints tickets

Lawmakers, elected leaders get early access to tickets at Tiger Stadium

By: - Tuesday October 4, 2022 12:11 pm

Louisiana officials use campaign cash to buy LSU, Saints tickets

Lawmakers, elected leaders get early access to tickets at Tiger Stadium

By: - 12:11 pm

Joe Burrow of the LSU Tigers looks to throw a pass against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff National Championship game at the Superdome on Jan. 13, 2020 in New Orleans. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Joe Burrow of the LSU Tigers looks to throw a pass against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff National Championship game at the Superdome on Jan. 13, 2020 in New Orleans. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a two-part series that looks into the spending of campaign money on sports tickets. You can find the second story here

If you’re looking for tickets to an LSU or Saints game this year, you might want to ask an elected official for help. 

Forty-nine Louisiana politicians spent $181,600 from their campaign accounts and political action committees (PACs) on tickets to collegiate and professional sporting events in 2020 and 2021, according to a review of state campaign finance records. Data for 2022 is not available yet. 

Over half of those purchasing the tickets were state lawmakers, but the group also includes the governor, sheriffs, district attorneys, one parish assessor and a state supreme court justice. 

Those who spent the most money on sports tickets over the two years are Gov. John Bel Edwards’ leadership PAC ($16,010); former Sen. John Smith of Leesville ($13,280); the governor’s brother, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards ($9,712); former Senate President John Alario of Westwego ($9,450); and Sen. Jay Luneau of Alexandria ($8,430).

Governor John Bel Edwards
The leadership political action committee of Gov. John Bel Edwards spent $16,010 on sports tickets in 2020 and 2021. It was the largest amount in the Illuminator’s review of campaign finance records. (Photo by Greg LaRose)

Louisiana law prohibits elected officials from using campaign money for “personal use,” but sports tickets have long been considered a legitimate expense for politicians. Applying campaign donations to sports tickets is legal so long as officials can explain why the spending is related to their campaign or job, said Kathleen Allen, the state’s ethics administrator.

“If it’s personal use, you are not supposed to use campaign funds, but there is an easy way to articulate why you need to use them,” said Scott Schneider, a Texas-based attorney and former member of the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which enforces campaign finance laws. “If you had a passing explanation, [ethics board members] were like ‘Oh, OK. Fine.’” 

Though legal, the spending raises questions about whether officials are using money donated for their elections to maintain a lifestyle that many Louisiana residents cannot afford. It costs thousands of dollars per year to hold a pair of LSU football or New Orleans Saints season tickets in a state where almost one in five residents live in poverty.

Elected officials get early access to tickets

In 2020 and 2021, LSU games were by far the most popular sports tickets purchased with campaign funds, accounting for nearly $140,000 of the $181,600 that officials spent

The spending was driven by LSU football’s national championship season in 2019. In January 2020 alone, elected officials made more than $28,000 in payments from their campaign accounts to LSU Athletics and the Sugar Bowl office. New Orleans hosted the national championship between LSU and Clemson University that month. 

Then-incoming Senate President Page Cortez’s campaign spending on LSU football dwarfs most others in January 2020.

Page Cortez, Louisiana Senate president.

Cortez, R-Lafayette, was elected president by his colleagues just hours before the national championship game. In the two weeks leading up to that election, his campaign spent $6,760 on tickets – the form didn’t specify how many or to what games – with LSU Athletics and the New Orleans College Football Host Committee. 

Cortez said his tickets were purchased for other people, and he didn’t attend the national championship game personally.

“I can’t recall the last time I purchased a ticket and went to a game,” he said. 

Every year, more than 150 elected officials and high-profile state government workers get the opportunity to buy LSU football and basketball season tickets before most members of the general public. 

Statewide elected officials and the congressional delegation can buy at least two season tickets for LSU football home and away games and home basketball games early. All of the 144 state legislators can also purchase two LSU home football and basketball season tickets before the general public. 

At the local government level, East Baton Rouge Parish’s mayor-president, district attorney and sheriff get to buy at least two home season football tickets early as well. 

Like many Louisianans, he finds that sporting events and concerts are great opportunities to forge connections and strengthen relationships.

– Eric Holl, spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards

Some high-profile state government employees also get advance access to LSU football and basketball tickets, including the superintendent of education, Louisiana House Clerk, Louisiana Senate Secretary, Louisiana State Police Superintendent and Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary. 

Louisiana Supreme Court justices and Public Service Commissioners do not get early access to game tickets, but they are given an opportunity to purchase LSU sports parking passes before the general public. The Baton Rouge Metro Council members, Baton Rouge city judges and 19th Judicial District court judges also get advance access to parking.

The John Bel Edwards for Louisiana Leadership PAC spent more money on sports tickets in 2020 and 2021 than any other campaign account or entity. The governor’s office said most of this money went toward purchasing a suite in Tiger Stadium for LSU football in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The governor also doesn’t have to pay for Saints or Pelican season tickets at all. His position comes with free access to suites in the Caesars Superdome and Smoothie King Center.  

“The governor regularly hosts legislators, constituents, higher education leaders, business leaders and other dignitaries in the suites at LSU and in New Orleans,” said Eric Holl, a spokesperson for the governor, in a written statement. “Like many Louisianans, he finds that sporting events and concerts are great opportunities to forge connections and strengthen relationships.”

Other officials say they give tickets away

Like Cortez, many officials who use their campaign funds for sports tickets say they don’t end up using the tickets personally. They donate them to charitable organizations or give them away to people in the community.

I have given those tickets out to my constituents and to my employees,” said Sheriff Daniel Edwards, who spent a little over $9,700 from his campaign fund on seats for Saints, LSU and Southeastern Louisiana University games in 2020 and 2021.

“I get lots and lots of constituents seeking tickets and asking for tickets. Some of the tickets I provide to different charitable organizations to raffle them off,” said Luneau, whose state Senate campaign spent $8,400 on LSU and Sugar Bowl tickets over a two-year period. “I don’t really go to that many games. I graduated from Louisiana Tech and not LSU.”

Senator Jay Luneau
State Sen. Jay Luneau said he gives away the sports tickets he purchases with campaign funds to charities and constituents. (Photo by Greg LaRose)

The way Luneau characterized the sports-ticket spending on his campaign finance forms suggests he could have used the tickets himself. In records submitted to the state, his campaign described eight purchases from the LSU Athletics and Sugar Bowl ticket offices as being for “event tickets to meet with legislators.” It didn’t mention the spending was related to football games or sports.

After the discrepancy was explained to Luneau, he said an accountant fills out campaign finance forms on behalf of his campaign, and there may have been a miscommunication about how the tickets are used. Luneau also added that when he does attend LSU games, he usually spends time talking with legislators or the governor about state business. 

Luneau’s campaign isn’t the only one that describes spending on sports tickets in opaque terms.

Six current and former elected officials classified payments their campaigns made to LSU Athletics and two organizations that financially support LSU sports programs – the Tradition Fund and the Tiger Athletic Foundation – as a “donation” or “charitable donation” on their campaign finance forms. 

They don’t mention that donations of this sort are required to purchase most LSU football season tickets. A mandatory donation to the Tradition Fund or Tiger Athletic Foundation actually makes up the bulk of the price for most season tickets to football games.  

Search: How much campaign cash did Louisiana elected officials spend on sports tickets

When elected officials give away tickets, they also don’t have to disclose who receives them. 

In March, Cortez told a reporter he was giving away tickets he purchased to the NCAA Final Four. He spent $760 from his campaign account on the seats, according to public documents. 

The Senate president declined to say who was getting the tickets, citing the recipient’s privacy. The sold-out event was held during the first weekend in April in the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. 

A history of debate over sports ticket spending

Not every level of government tolerates this type of campaign spending. Federal candidates and elected officials are typically prohibited from purchasing sports tickets with their political funds. 

A review of campaign finance records shows not one of Louisiana’s eight members of Congress listed sports tickets as a campaign expense in 2020 or 2021, though they receive the same early access to LSU game seats that state government elected officials do. 

Clearly, under federal law, [campaign spending] has to be closely related to a true campaign or political purpose,” said Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission and a national campaign finance expert.

Ann Ravel

For decades, Louisiana legislators have been reluctant to approve laws that would limit their ability to use their elected office to acquire sports tickets.

In fact, the legislators had access to completely free sports tickets – up to a value of $100 per game and $500 annually from each donor – until 2008, when a new slate of ethics laws was approved with former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s support. Jindal also voluntarily gave up the governor’s complimentary seats in Tiger Stadium that year.

The loss of complimentary seats means more elected officials, including the governor, have had to find a way to pay for sporting events, and many more may be tapping their campaign accounts to cover those bills.

Read our second story on this topic here. We have also provided a chart with all candidates and elected officials’ campaign spending on sports tickets in 2020 and 2021 here. You can see which elected officials and state government workers get early access to LSU sports tickets and parking passes here

Correction: This story has been updated to indicate legislators changed state law in 2001 to give local elected officials access to free sports tickets.  That law was updated in 2008.


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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.