In the latest twist to allegations that a group funded by Louisiana state troopers’ personal money used a straw donor to bankroll political candidates, three members of the state board probing those claims are expected to be asked to step down because they violated the same rules as those they’re supposed to investigate.
Louisiana State Police Commission Chairman Franklin M. Kyle III and members Freddie Pitcher and William Goldring each made campaign donations — together totaling more than $22,000 — in violation of the organization’s own rules, the commission’s Executive Director Cathy Derbonne said late Thursday.
The commissioners, one of whom is a former appellate court judge, swore an oath to abide by the rules and must either quit or be dismissed by the governor, Derbonne said.
They were each appointed by former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Derbonne said she’s meeting with Gov. John Bel Edwards about the issue on Monday.
Pitcher said late Thursday he will voluntarily resign. Kyle denied any wrongdoing and said he doesn’t expect to step down or be forced out by anyone. Efforts to reach Goldring were unsuccessful.
The possible shakeup on the seven-member state board — which hears troopers’ complaints and has final authority over the State Police Service, resembling the civil service board for police officers — is the latest wrinkle in a case that’s raised questions about money given indirectly to politicians from state workers, which was first reported by Tom Aswell, who’s been chronicling the issue on his website, LouisianaVoice.com.
Troopers, as classified state employees, are forbidden from endorsing or giving money to candidates. The commissioners are bound by the same rules.
The problem came to light because the commission was in the midst of probing whether the Louisiana State Troopers Association — a private organization funded in part by dues-paying active troopers — used a straw donor to give $14,750 last year to various politicians, including Edwards.
David T. Young, the association’s executive director, who is not a civil servant, acknowledged he gave the money and was reimbursed by the group. But he previously told The Advocate he didn’t see anything wrong with the arrangement, which he said has been going on for years.
“There’s questions regarding the ability of a state employee to make a contribution,” he said in January. “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.”
Edwards — who received an unusual endorsement from the troopers association, which raised red flags for some of its members — returned his portion, $9,500, to the association in January after Young’s contribution was publicized.
Though the association is a private 501(c)(5) organization, some members who are retired troopers said it was improper for the group to donate to candidates because it is funded in part by individual troopers and didn’t consult its rank-and-file membership on how the funds would be spent.
The group claims it represents 97 percent of current troopers and a large number of retired troopers.
Troopers’ dues make up less than half of the association’s funding, Young has said.
Derbonne said the political payments by commissioners present a conflict of interest, as the body is in the process of investigating an analogous situation, specifically, whether any active troopers were involved in the choice to endorse or give funds to politicians.
“When you’re sworn in, you’re swearing in that ‘I understand these rules.’ If you’re not aware of the rules, you need to learn ’em,” Derbonne said of the three commissioners.
Derbonne said she is meeting with Edwards to ask if he wants to play any role in resolving the conflict.
Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the governor, confirmed the planned meeting early next week and said Edwards will determine his next steps after reviewing the information.
Edwards will return donations if his treasurer finds the contributions were made improperly, Carbo said.
Pitcher, a Southern University Law School professor and the school’s former chancellor, gave $5,850 to various candidates over the six years he’s been on the commission, according to the Ethics Administration. He was appointed on July 1, 2010.
“I’m going to (step down) of my own volition,” Pitcher said Thursday. “I’ve served for a good period of time. I feel constrained that I will not get to do some things that I would like to do to help persons who I may want to help politically.”
He gave $350 to Edwards last year, according to the ethics data.
Pitcher said he didn’t know he was prohibited from making political contributions.
“That piece did slip by me. I was not aware of that,” he said.
Pitcher, a senior partner at the law firm Phelps Dunbar, has also served as a judge, most recently on the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal and formerly in the 19th Judicial District Court.
Kyle, the Mandeville-based head of Kyle Associates, an engineering and landscape architecture firm, contributed $16,125 to 15 politicians over the course of his first commission term from Sept. 3, 2010, to Dec. 5, 2012, Ethics Administration data shows.
“State Police rules do apply to me,” Kyle said. “But I’m not going to talk about this anymore. I’m not stepping down, and I’m not going to be pressured to step down.”
Kyle did not donate money in his second term on the commission, which began July 19, 2013, according to the ethics data.
But Derbonne is investigating whether Kyle, a consistent political donor who, according to ethics data, has given $68,575 over the past 16 years — an average of $4,286 a year — had any role in the money his wife has given during his current commission term.
Melissa N. Kyle, who shows no record of making political donations before 2013, the year her husband rejoined the board, gave at least $21,000 since the start of 2013, according to the Ethics Administration.
Last year, Melissa Kyle gave at least $18,000, with $10,000 to Edwards alone, the data shows. Attempts to speak to her were unsuccessful.
“My wife can do whatever she wants to do politically. She’s her own independent person,” Franklin Kyle said.
He added he expects more information to come to light at the next public commission meeting April 14.
Goldring, a New Orleans-based philanthropist and liquor distributor, gave $200 in 2013 to Jack Rizzuto, a Metairie businessman who lost a bid to become a state representative that year, according to the ethics information.
Derbonne, who has served with the commission since 2009, said she believes the political contributions linked to the troopers association and the commissioners are serious issues.
“I have received more calls recently than I have in seven years,” she said. “We’ve never ever had an investigation like this before.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on March 26 to reflect the correct amounts Melissa N. Kyle has made in political campaign contributions since 2013. An earlier version of the story listed higher figures for her than the ones she actually made.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.