Incumbent St. John president, challenger spar over economy, water quality, Isaac response _lowres

St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom

St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom illegally paid her daughter about $5,000 from her campaign coffers before the Oct. 24 primary, according to her campaign finance filings.

Robottom repaid the money on Friday, a day after The Advocate questioned her about the payments, which violated state law. She acknowledged the mistake and said the restriction against campaign payments to immediate family members was “obviously something I was unfamiliar with.”

She said Friday that her campaign contacted Louisiana Board of Ethics staff members. They confirmed the transaction was illegal, and “the remedy today has been to reimburse the campaign,” she said.

Robottom paid her daughter, Courtney Robottom Fos, $5,312 in eight transactions from her campaign funds for “campaign worker” services between Aug. 28 and Oct. 2, Robottom’s filings show. She said Friday that she has repaid that money to her campaign.

“My daughter manages the campaign office every day,” Robottom said. “She works for every penny she received, and it was a valid job that was being done, but obviously she shouldn’t have been paid through the campaign.

“She will continue to work in my campaign office from 9 to 5, but she just won’t be paid out of my campaign fund,” she added.

Robottom said her daughter is making about $18 an hour and that she often has “worked outside the 40 hours a week.”

Office of Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen said she could not comment on a specific case. But, she added, “If someone calls our office and says there may have been a problem and what they should do, we might tell them to reimburse the funds.”

“But whether that cures it all is not a question our staff can answer,” she said. “Our office and staff receive the reports, but whether there will be actions would be up to the board.”

The first-term parish president will face lawyer Danny Becnel Jr., who received about 32 percent of the primary vote compared with Robottom’s 31 percent, in a Nov. 21 runoff. Both are Democrats from LaPlace.

Early voting in the race starts Saturday.

Using campaign money to pay a relative has been in the news in recent years, with controversy swirling in particular around payments from the campaign fund of former 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed to businesses owned by his son, Steven Reed.

The state law does allow for payments from campaigns to businesses owned by family members provided the business has existed for a year or more and the transactions are at “arm’s length” — meaning the payments were not inflated.

Reed and his son both face federal charges related to those payments. Federal prosecutors allege that the campaign overpaid Steven Reed for his services, in part so that he could pay down a loan on which his father was a co-signer.

The penalty for breaking the state campaign law is “not more than $5,000 or the amount of the violation, whichever is greater,” except when the violation is “knowing and willful.” In such cases, the fines can run up to $10,000 or 200 percent of the amount improperly paid.

The law defines “knowing and willful” as “conduct which could have been avoided through the exercise of due diligence.”

Between January and Oct. 4, Robottom spent about $62,600 in campaign funds.

Her opponent, Becnel, a wealthy trial lawyer, spent about $42,000 during that same period, all from his own personal funds.