The line between where legitimate campaign expenses end and law-breaking begins can be blurry. It’s a fuzziness Louisiana politicians have long been able to exploit, with little fear of consequences.

But campaign spending abuse is coming under harsher scrutiny of late, both in a blizzard of media reports and in criminal cases — most recently that of Walter Reed, whose 18-count federal indictment rests heavily on allegations that he used his sizable campaign war chest like a personal ATM.

While Louisiana, not federal, law governs campaign spending for politicians who hold local and state offices, Reed, who will be arraigned Monday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, is not alone in drawing recent federal attention to his campaign spending.

In at least two other instances, there are strong indications that the feds are taking an interest. WVUE-TV and The Times-Picayune reported last week that the FBI is investigating state Senate President John Alario’s campaign spending; they cited unnamed sources who say the probe focuses on discrepancies in expenditures reported by Alario in 2011. Alario told The Advocate this week that he may have made accounting mistakes, but that even if he did, he committed no crime.

A federal grand jury also has subpoenaed records from Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville. That subpoena went out after the same organizations reported last year that Harrison might have billed both his campaign fund and his legislative office for the same mileage expenses.

Yet another investigation apparently centers on campaign spending by embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta — in particular, Peralta’s habit of withdrawing cash from his campaign account at area casinos.

Peralta says he used the cash to pay for meals with campaign advisers, strategists and others involved in his re-election effort. It’s unclear whether the FBI is involved in that aspect of the Peralta probe.

Lots of rule-breakers

The notion that federal authorities may have gotten more interested in policing state campaign laws might well be causing queasiness among politicians who have stretched the rules. And plenty are believed to be in that camp — especially with the state Board of Ethics, the traditional enforcer of campaign finance laws, widely viewed as a paper tiger.

Harry Rosenberg, a defense lawyer and former U.S. attorney, sees a greater national interest in campaign finance cases developing among federal prosecutors, pointing to the prosecution of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., in Illinois, and former presidential candidate John Edwards as examples.

But Jackson and Edwards were both federal office-seekers, giving federal prosecutors clear jurisdiction. In the Reed case, lawyer Rick Simmons has made it clear that he thinks U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office is on shaky ground building a case against Reed in part on state campaign finance abuses.

In a news conference after Reed’s indictment, Simmons said his team will challenge the government’s use of the Internal Revenue Service to enforce state campaign laws. And he cited a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in USA v. Ratcliff that indicated the appellate court is leery of stepping on state regulatory toes when it comes to enforcing state campaign finance law.

Dane Ciolino, a Loyola Law School professor and defense attorney, said he thinks federal cases built on violations of state campaign laws “raise questions about federalism and the First Amendment.”

And even if prosecutors can make a credible case for, say, mail fraud — one of the charges Reed faces — “they should ask themselves whether any federal interests are truly implicated,” he said.

“I’m not saying (campaign fund abuse) doesn’t fall within their jurisdiction, but it’s certainly not in the heartland of what the federal government traditionally prosecutes,” Ciolino said.

Questions of fairness

The “heartland” Ciolino referenced, when it comes to public corruption, involves bribe and kickback schemes. When a politician instead is helping himself, even if inappropriately, to money that donors willingly gave to his campaign war chest, it raises a basic question in the eyes of defense lawyer Tim Meche: “Who’s the victim?”

Simmons has made the same point, repeatedly noting that the campaign cash Reed is accused of helping himself to is not taxpayer money.

But others take a dim view of that argument, noting that some donations are given under pressure, and that politicians often wouldn’t have the ability to solicit the money in the first place if they were not holding public office.

Along with questions of jurisdiction, federal prosecutions of state campaign finance abuse could raise questions of simple fairness.

Given that abuse of campaign funds is believed to be widespread, singling out one or two officeholders for prosecution “raises a huge question about, ‘Hey, what about everybody else?’ ” Meche said.

But that’s not much of a defense, in Ciolino’s view. “Just because everyone’s throwing sand in the sandbox, that doesn’t make it OK,” he said.

Peralta, who spent about $35,000 in campaign funds last year, said he has no problem with being one of those selected to go under the microscope — though he noted his fundraising operation pales next to those of Alario and Reed.

“I think they have every right in the world to go through these records,” he said. “When you become a political figure, whether you like it or not, it’s just that you’re held to a certain scrutiny, and you know that.”

While he agrees with Simmons that campaign money is different from taxpayer money, Peralta said he understands it can’t be treated as a personal bank account.

“It should have more scrutiny than a personal account but less scrutiny than a government account,” he said.

“I don’t have a problem” with the investigation, he added.

More cases coming?

Rosenberg said he has heard “through the grapevine” that there will be more campaign finance-related cases coming through the federal courthouse on Camp Street. And Ciolino said that would square with national trends.

But Matt Chester, who recently left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said he doubts that the recent government interest in campaign abuses reflects any new direction on the part of the FBI or Polite’s office.

“I wouldn’t say there’s some sort of departmentwide or even local officewide initiative that we need to be trolling campaign finance reports to see how people are spending their money,” Chester said, stressing that he couldn’t discuss the Reed case specifically. “You’re going to get a tip or a media report that suggests somebody’s taking money and using it to enrich themselves.”

Still, there’s no legal impediment to the feds looking at such abuses, Chester said, calling it more of policy question. “There’s a question maybe of policy: Should the feds be policing something like that? But in an area of public corruption, I think absolutely the feds should be doing something like that.”

Politicians are clever, Chester said, and campaign donations can be used as a seemingly legal way to pay bribes.

“When there are suspicious sorts of transactions involved that they want to maybe hide from investigators or scrutiny, they’re going to dress it up to make it seem legitimate,” he said. “Doing it in the form of campaign contributions is one way to do it.’’

Larry Noble, senior counsel at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, shares Chester’s skepticism about whether the Justice Department is turning up the heat on local campaign finance scofflaws in any orchestrated way.

Usually, the FBI and federal prosecutors focus on federal officeholders and candidates — like Edwards and Jackson — but “they’ve always gotten into these (local cases) to some extent. Not very often,” Noble said. When they do, he said, it’s typically because the campaign abuses are eye-popping or else because the politician is under scrutiny for multiple issues.

“Obviously since the (campaign finance) law itself is a Louisiana law, they’re going after the conspiracy to violate the law, the money laundering, income tax violation,” Noble said. “What they’ll look at is the amount of money involved, whether or not it looks like a real scheme to defraud, as opposed to those gray areas. It looks like they’re alleging (Reed) set up a whole scheme to do this. That is often the dividing line for the Department of Justice: Was there a real intent to defraud people, as opposed to buying himself a meal?

“These have popped up periodically. Often there’s some reason this person has come into view of the FBI or the Department of Justice. Something’s going on, and then they start an investigation. I don’t get the sense that they generally go through state-level finance statements looking for problems. Often there’s something else, or they’re looking at somebody else and something like this comes across.”

That seems to have been the case with Reed, who came under intense media scrutiny starting in late 2013 for a laundry list of questionable actions. That sparked a wide-ranging federal probe.

The same dynamic appears to have been in play in some earlier prosecutions that included campaign finance allegations, for example, those involving white supremacist David Duke, former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price and former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle. In the latter two cases, the campaign finance allegations were not the most serious charges.

The ‘big gray area’

Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, said politicians might be less nervous if the law on donations was tighter and clearer. Keeping things murky makes compliance harder, he said — and could leave people open to criminal rather than civil prosecution.

“Sooner or later, one enforcement agency will see it one way, and another will see it another. Or one judge and jury might see it differently than another,” Scott said.

But while Scott sees the law as too murky, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration says the ethics reforms it pushed through in 2008 were game-changers.

Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s chief of staff, said Louisiana’s ethics ranking has gone up and businesses have been more willing to invest in the state as a result.

And Thomas Enright, the governor’s executive counsel, pointed to a change in the law that touches on Reed: The category for district attorneys was changed from an intermediate-level office to a major office, which brought more stringent reporting requirements.

Plotkin said that while the state is always open to strengthening the laws, what’s already been done has made a significant difference in catching wrongdoers and prosecuting them. “It’s a deterrent to public officials who are looking to skirt the law,” he said.

But Scott is more skeptical.

“They don’t want to make good rules,” he said. “They like the big gray area.”

Staff writers Richard Thompson and Gordon Russell contributed to this report.