Faced with information that a private organization used money from state troopers to donate to politicians, including Gov. John Bel Edwards — prompting Edwards to return the cash — the Louisiana State Police Commission said Thursday it will investigate whether any active troopers were involved in the decision to endorse or give funds to candidates.
The announcement, made at the commission’s monthly public meeting, came in response to allegations at last month’s gathering that the Louisiana State Troopers Association — a 501(c)(5) organization made up of current troopers who pay dues, along with a substantial number of retired troopers — used its executive director, David Young, as a straw donor to give $14,750 last year to seven candidates and the House Democratic Campaign Committee without the knowledge or approval of its rank-and-file members, who aren’t allowed to engage in politics.
Though Young is not a classified employee, the statement Thursday could have implications for the association’s board, which includes classified workers such as its treasurer, Stephen LaFargue, a state trooper.
By law, classified state employees such as troopers are prohibited from making political contributions.
Young said Thursday that LaFargue, who was the troopers association’s acting president during the latter half of last year when the donations to Edwards were made, was involved in the decision to spend the money. LaFargue declined to comment, referring all queries to the association’s attorney, Floyd Falcon. Falcon did not want to elaborate on the situation but said he was eager to find out whom the commission intends to investigate.
Young and Falcon have admitted the organization reimbursed Young for the contributions, yet said there is nothing wrong with the arrangement, which has been in place for years. According to data from the state Ethics Administration, Young, a registered lobbyist, has donated at least $53,000 to various candidates and political organizations since 2003.
“There’s questions regarding the ability of a state employee to make a contribution,” Young told The Advocate last month. “So in order to avoid any of that, if I make a contribution as a nonstate employee, there could never be a question later that a state employee made a contribution.”
But the day after The Advocate printed an article last month about the campaign contributions, Edwards — who received an uncharacteristic endorsement from the troopers association in November — returned $9,500 to the association, representing the total amount Young donated to Edwards from 2013 through 2015.
“We are returning this money to your association in light of the very recent media reports concerning Mr. Young’s contributions to Gov. Edwards’ campaign,” wrote the governor’s campaign treasurer, Andrew M. Edwards II, in a letter dated Jan. 16 to troopers association President Jay O’Quinn.
The State Police Commission, a seven-member body whose job is to enforce State Police rules and hear complaints, said it did not have jurisdiction to investigate the troopers association because the association is a private entity, and it also said the commission did not have the authority to determine whether Young, a civilian, violated the law by making political contributions in his name and having the troopers association reimburse him.
“However, if classified state troopers were involved in the selection of political candidates for (the Louisiana State Troopers Association) to support through financial contributions or endorsements, or otherwise made financial contributions through the (association) to political candidates, then those troopers may be subject to discipline by the (State Police Commission),” said the commission’s attorney, M. Lenore Feeney, at the meeting Thursday.
State Police Commission Chairman Franklin M. Kyle III added, “We have the authority and the obligation to do this.”
O’Quinn, who became the troopers association president in January, declined to answer questions about whether he knew about or had any role in the decision to endorse Edwards or give him money.
“Once we learn the specifics of the possible Louisiana State Police Commission investigation, we will confer with counsel about how best to proceed,” he said.
Falcon and Young said last month that though current troopers pay dues to be members of the association, which functions as a benevolent organization to aid troopers during hardships and functions almost like a union, no more than 50 percent of its money comes from dues. The association also raises outside funds and donates to various causes, said Falcon and Young, who declined to reveal the organization’s overall budget.
Early in the meeting Thursday, one of the commission’s members, Calvin Braxton Sr., said he did not want to approve the minutes of last month’s meeting because the document didn’t adequately summarize some of the key points that had been made.
One of those key issues — which the board ultimately agreed to incorporate into revised minutes — involved an exchange between Falcon, the troopers association’s lawyer, and W. Lloyd Grafton, the commission’s vice chairman.
“What I hear you saying is that Louisiana (State) Police is prohibited from contributing to a political candidate,” Grafton said to Falcon. “So you’re telling us that Louisiana State Police can form another group, and they can contribute to a politician, when they were prohibited under the law from doing so, and they would not be held accountable because they formed a separate association?”
Falcon replied, “Yes.”
That prompted Grafton to respond: “It almost makes me think there was something suspect here because of the check writing.”
Neither Young nor Falcon said they knew why the troopers association didn’t write checks directly from its account if the whole setup had been kosher in the first place.
The commission has six months to launch an investigation, which will be conducted in private, before it would present its findings at a public hearing.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.