Former Louisiana elected officials tap their old campaign funds to buy sports tickets 

Most of the expense is considered a charitable donation under the law

By: - Wednesday October 5, 2022 1:34 pm

Former Louisiana elected officials tap their old campaign funds to buy sports tickets 

Most of the expense is considered a charitable donation under the law

By: - 1:34 pm

Members of the LSU Golden Girls perform prior to the game against the Utah State Aggies at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 5, 2019. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Members of the LSU Golden Girls perform prior to the game against the Utah State Aggies at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 5, 2019. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-part series that looks into the spending of campaign money on sports tickets. You can read the first installment here. You’ll find a chart below this story that online sports ticket spending by former elected officials.

In Louisiana, stepping down from public office doesn’t necessarily mean leaving behind all the perks of the job. 

In 2020 and 2021, seven former elected officials used dormant campaign funds to purchase sports tickets they used after they were out of elected office, according to a review of campaign finance documents.  

Sports tickets have long been considered a legitimate expense for politicians seeking office or currently holding an elected position. Using campaign donations for sports tickets is legal so long as officials can explain why the spending is related to their campaign or elected job, said Kathleen Allen, the state’s ethics board administrator.

It’s difficult, however, to explain how the former elected officials’ spending on sports tickets could be related to holding an elected position they no longer have. 

Former elected office holders are supposed to face more restrictions on spending from their campaign funds than people actively running for office or already holding an elected post, but these politicians took advantage of loopholes that allow them to continue to use their campaign money more freely. 

In fact, two former elected officials – former legislators John Alario of Westwego and John Raymond Smith of Leesville – spent more campaign money on sports tickets than almost any elected official currently holding office in 2020 and 2021.

Former Louisiana legislators John Alario and John R. Smith.
Former Louisiana legislators John Alario, left, and John R. Smith.

In February 2020, Alario used his leftover campaign funds to spend $9,450 on LSU tickets. Smith spent $13,280 from his campaign account on a Tiger Stadium suite for the same season. 

Alario and Smith were unable to run for re-election in 2019 because of term limits. Their last day serving in the Legislature was Jan. 13, 2020, about a month before they each bought their LSU seats. 

Alario, a former House Speaker and Senate President, had served in the Legislature since the early 1970s. Smith had been a state lawmaker since the 1990s. 

In an interview, Alario said his LSU tickets were likely bought in early January, in the days before he officially left his job as Senate President and before the LSU national championship game. The spending might not have shown up on his campaign account forms until February because that is when the credit card used to purchase them billed his campaign. 

Smith could not be reached for an interview. Messages left with a phone number listed on his campaign reports were not returned, and he did not respond to messages sent through Facebook. Former U.S. Rep. Chris John, Smith’s son-in-law, also didn’t return phone calls and text messages sent to his cell phone in an attempt to reach Smith. 

It seems to me that you are looking for a story that doesn’t exist.

– Doug Moreau, former East Baton Rouge district attorney

Records show Smith purchased his Tiger Stadium suite from Allyson Phar, a state lobbyist who works on behalf of Acadian Ambulance, a large government contractor and prolific campaign donor to state lawmakers. Phar did not respond to calls to her office for comment on this story. 

Alario bought some of his tickets – $3,220 worth – from S.N.D.V, a corporation he started with former lawmakers and local government contractors in 1999 to pay for a suite in Tiger Stadium. The group is headed up by former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier of New Orleans. Heitmeier has been a lobbyist for the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, an influential group in state politics, for over a decade. 

LSU Tigers cheerleaders perform against the Auburn Tigers during the second half at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 26, 2019 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Cloudy ‘future’ for former officials

Under state law, the leftover campaign funds of former elected officials can only be used to make charitable donations to nonprofits or campaign contributions to other political candidates or causes. Retired elected officials also have the option to return the remaining campaign cash to their donors. 

Former officials frequently circumvent these limitations on their old campaign funds by declaring they are running for some undesignated “future” elected office on campaign finance reports. They can do so even when no campaign organizing or fundraising is taking place. 

Alario and Smith listed on recent campaign forms that they might run for a “future” office, but neither has been floated as a serious candidate in an upcoming election. 

“I may [run for office again],” Alario said when asked about the ambiguous “future” office listed on his campaign form. “I haven’t decided yet, but there are all kinds of possibilities.”

Below: A table of sports ticket spending by former officials

Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission and a national campaign finance expert, said “conjecture” about a possible run for office shouldn’t be used to justify spending on sports tickets from old campaign accounts.

“[Until Alario runs for office again], he is using that money for an improper purpose” under laws in some states, said Ravel, a professor at the University of California Berkeley law school and former chairman of the California state board that oversees campaign finance enforcement. 

“I doubt that too many people do that here in California. The [California] Fair Practices Commission would be on them,” she said. 

Ticket expense considered a donation 

Former elected officials also take advantage of the fact that the bulk of the cost for most LSU football, men’s basketball and baseball season tickets is technically a nonprofit donation. 

Former elected officials are allowed to use their defunct campaign funds for nonprofit contributions, so the mandatory donations attached to sports tickets are considered a legitimate campaign fund expense under state law. 

Approximately 56,000 football season tickets sold in Tiger Stadium require a donation to the LSU Tradition Fund or Tiger Athletic Foundation, entities that financially support the university’s athletic programs. For example, football season tickets near the 50-yard line on the west side of Tiger Stadium cost $495 per ticket and require a $1,125 mandatory donation per ticket to the Tradition Fund, according to documents provided by LSU. 

“It’s absolutely legal,” former Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said of using his old campaign funds to purchase LSU tickets. “Most of the money goes to the foundation.”

Ronnie Johns

Johns announced his resignation from the Senate to become the appointed chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board on July 23, 2021. Three days prior, he sent a $3,660 “donation” from his Senate campaign account to the LSU Athletic Department. 

Johns’ charitable contribution was the exact same amount of money that other legislators reported paying for LSU football season tickets that year, according to a review of campaign finance records. 

“I donated the tickets to people who wanted to go to LSU games. I think it’s a common practice among legislators,” Johns said. “LSU offered me the tickets, being that there was not a senator [in Johns’ former Senate seat at the time].” 

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Former DA: ‘You are looking for a story that doesn’t exist’

Doug Moreau, former East Baton Rouge district attorney and judge, is still using leftover campaign funds for sports tickets more than a decade after leaving public office.

Moreau, a former LSU and NFL football player, hasn’t held an elected post since he stepped down as Baton Rouge’s top prosecutor in 2009. That didn’t stop him from using his old campaign money to make a $2,150 donation to the LSU Tradition Fund in February 2020.

In an interview, he confirmed the donation was required to hold on to football season tickets his family has had since the early 1970s. Moreau said he only uses campaign funds to cover the Tradition Fund contribution. His personal funds cover the actual ticket price.

“It  seems to me that you are looking for a story that doesn’t exist,” Moreau said when asked about his campaign fund use. “The Tradition Fund donation is paid out of my campaign account, which I think is the fair way to do it.” 

The former prosecutor said he had his season tickets for decades before LSU started attaching the mandatory nonprofit donation to the seats – and he doesn’t agree with the practice. It’s increased the cost of going to each home game significantly.

“Frankly, I would prefer they hadn’t done that,” he said.

Moreau doesn’t use the season tickets to attend games himself. He works in the Tiger Stadium broadcast booth as an LSU Sports Radio Network commentator. He said his family members typically use his seats. 

Campaign finance experts say Louisiana could do more to crack down on spending by former elected officials. 

The issue isn’t so much that Louisiana has weak ethics laws, but that the Louisiana Board of Ethics doesn’t have resources and tools to enforce what’s already on the books. It doesn’t have enough staff to perform spot checks or regular audits of campaign finance reports, according to former ethics board members.

“People are doing things that should be raising some red flags in their campaigns and might not withstand scrutiny, but there just isn’t that,” said Scott Schneider, a Texas-based attorney who served on the Louisiana ethics board from 2008 to 2013. 

“There wasn’t the resources or the appetite to do that.” 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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