Some retired State Police troopers complained at a public meeting Thursday that the Louisiana State Troopers Association used a straw donor to unlawfully contribute to candidates’ campaigns in 2015, even though troopers, as classified state employees, are forbidden from making political donations.
The retired troopers are asking the State Police Commission, which they say has subpoena power, to investigate the payments they claim were made without their knowledge or consent.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is one of seven politicians, in addition to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, who received a total of $14,750 from the personal account of David T. Young, LSTA’s executive director, according to campaign finance data from the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Edwards, who also received a rare endorsement from LSTA in November, accepted $8,000 from Young in three installments made in July, August and October, according to the data.
Young acknowledged Thursday he was fully reimbursed for the contributions by the LSTA but said there was nothing wrong with the arrangement because he is a lobbyist for the troopers and isn’t a state employee.
The revelation prompted Edwards, through spokesman Richard Carbo, to say late Thursday he would review the testimony of the meeting and would return the money “if the contributions were made improperly.”
“The governor had no knowledge of the organization reimbursing Mr. Young,” Carbo said.
The LSTA is a private benevolent 501(c)(5) organization that collects dues from its membership. It claims that it represents 97 percent of current troopers and a substantial number of retired troopers.
The group, which also raises outside funds, functions almost like a union — though it does not have collective bargaining power — and donates to causes, including compensating troopers experiencing hardships, Young said.
“When (the LSTA) contacted the governor regarding his endorsement, the governor was proud to accept their support and the support of the law enforcement community,” Carbo said.
Young said his actions are benign and compared the LSTA’s political payments to those of a teachers union or other union of public employees.
He said politicians know that his money, which he said he’s been donating the same way for the past 15 years, actually comes from the LSTA because he sends checks with his business card in an LSTA envelope.
“There’s not one of them down there who doesn’t know who the check comes from, ultimately,” Young said.
Though the LSTA, as a 501(c)(5) organization, is allowed to make political contributions directly, Young said he made the donations personally to avoid the appearance of troopers’ money being used on campaigns.
“There’s questions regarding the ability of a state employee to make a contribution,” Young said. “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 Thursday, one of the board members at the public meeting of the State Police Commission — which functions as the troopers’ civil service board by hearing complaints and enforcing commission rules — raised questions about whether money was being funneled improperly.
“It almost makes me think there was something suspect here because of the check writing. Why wouldn’t the association have made the contribution?” asked Vice Chairman W. Lloyd Grafton.
LSTA’s lawyer, Floyd Falcon, responded, saying he didn’t know why the check was made in Young’s name.
“It looks like someone was trying to circumvent something,” Grafton said.
Leon Millet, a retired State Police lieutenant who served more than 20 years with the agency, said the payments were made without the knowledge or consent of the membership and appear to be a violation of the state constitution and State Police Commission rules.
Millet also said he speaks for many current troopers who have indicated to him they’re afraid to come forward about the issue because they’re fearful for their careers.
State troopers are not allowed to “directly or indirectly, pay or promise to pay any assessment, subscription, or contribution for any political party, faction or candidate,” according to State Police Commission Rule 14.2.
Louisiana revised statute 18:1505.2 says, “No person shall give, furnish, or contribute monies, materials, supplies, or make loans to or in support of a candidate or to any political committee, through or in the name of another, directly or indirectly. This prohibition shall not apply to dues or membership fees of any membership organization or corporation made by its members or stockholders, if such membership organization or corporation is not organized primarily for the purpose of supporting, opposing, or otherwise influencing the nomination for election, or election of any person to public office.”
Young said there is nothing improper about the contributions made by LSTA, which pays 30 percent taxes on its political bequests to the IRS. Less than 50 percent of LSTA’s funds are from current troopers’ dues, he said, adding the organization raises money from other sources.
He declined to provide information on the organization’s overall budget but said the political contributions account for a “very small” portion of it, which he said explains why the amounts were folded in with other minimal line items in LSTA’s annual report under “miscellaneous.”
Tanny Devillier, a retired State Police deputy commander who said he helped found the LSTA in 1969, said the organization was never meant to be involved in politics. He said the “miscellaneous” label on the funds “is apparently a camouflage to deceive the general public.”
Retired State Police Capt. Jesse Scott Perry said he was alarmed the LSTA made an endorsement in the last election, which he says never happened in his 26-year career.
“When a trooper arrives on a scene of an accident or criminal investigation, they should not see who the State Police backed in the last election,” he said, pointing out that State Police could, if warranted, investigate the Governor’s Office or any other politician. “That’s why state troopers should not participate in political activity,” he said.
Perry is now an investigator at the state Inspector General’s Office but took leave Thursday to attend the meeting, which he said he is doing entirely in his capacity as an LSTA member and not on behalf of his current employer.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said he knew the LSTA made political contributions, as he believes the organization is entitled to do, but added the State Police is independent of the fraternal organization.
Other beneficiaries of LSTA’s money in 2015 include Scott Angelle, $2,500; Chris Broadwater, $1,000; Cloyce Clark, $2,000; Paula Davis, $250; Frank A. Hoffman, $250; the House Democratic Campaign Committee of Louisiana, $500; and M.P. “Pete” Schneider III, $250, according to the Ethics Administration. The Advocate did not seek comment from those recipients.
State Police Commission Chairman Franklin M. Kyle III said while his team does not have jurisdiction over private groups like the LSTA, the common denominator between the organizations is its shared membership of troopers. He asked the LSTA to provide more documentation on its finances and invited the disgruntled former troopers to appear at a future meeting.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.