T. Taylor Townsend

T. Taylor Townsend

A top fund-raiser for Gov. John Bel Edwards who was recently hired by the governor to handle a potentially lucrative state lawsuit also happens to be the man brought in earlier this year to investigate possibly improper campaign donations to Edwards and others by State Police troopers and the board that oversees them.

T. Taylor Townsend, a Natchitotches-based attorney and former state representative, has a $75,000 contract for a year's worth of work to oversee investigations involving the State Police. His client is the State Police Commission, a group with a $500,000 yearly budget that's tasked with hearing trooper complaints and evaluating alleged trooper misconduct. Six of the group's seven members are appointed by the governor.

Townsend's involvement is notable not only because is he a top Edwards donor but also because two of the probes he was assigned at the State Police Commission had to do with investigating campaign donations to politicians including Edwards.

The State Police Commission's executive director, Cathy Derbonne, said her contract with Townsend was not in any way initiated by the governor's office. It came about solely because of Townsend's good reputation, she said — a characterization Townsend agreed with.

Edwards' executive counsel, Matthew Block, said the governor didn't even become aware that Townsend had been hired by the State Police Commission until after it happened.

The governor's office has denied allegations of political favoritism in Townsend's recent hiring by the governor to represent the state in lawsuits seeking to hold oil and gas companies liable for coastal land loss — a job for which Townsend and his partners could enjoy a significant payday.

Townsend heads Edwards' fundraising super PAC, Louisiana Families First. Between them, he and the other lawyers hired to handle the coastal suits raised some $130,000 for Edwards last year.

One ethics expert said there's nothing improper about a top Edwards fundraiser investigating others' contributions to Edwards and other politicians.

"There's nothing in the law that would prohibit that, and I'm not aware of any overarching principle of ethics that would be drawn into question by reason of that occurrence," said Gray Sexton, who served as general counsel for the state Ethics Board for four decades and now, as a private attorney, advises clients on how to navigate ethics law.

But another expert, Robert St. Martin Westley, who teaches legal ethics at Tulane University Law School, said the arrangement presents "not an actual but a potential conflict of interest."

"You're enforcing state campaign finance law. That should itself not be a political process, and so if you take someone who is part of the political process and put them in charge of something that's supposed to be a legal process, that's where the appearance of impropriety comes in. (Townsend) is not sufficiently independent," said Westley, who emphasized he was speaking from his legal ethics experience in general, not as someone devoted to governmental ethics or campaign finance law specifically.

Townsend said the experts' statements confirmed that there's no evidence his work for the commission presents a conflict.

"There is nothing wrong," he said. "One person perceives it one way, someone perceives it (the other way) ... that's just not the way ethics opinions are written."

In one of the probes Townsend handled for the State Police Commission, he issued a thorough report that outlined how three members of the commission unlawfully donated to various politicians, including giving at least $9,000 to Edwards, in violation of the commission's rules.

Commissioners, like troopers, are banned from giving political donations.

Shortly after Townsend's report was published in April, the three commissioners he implicated stepped down. Two new commissioners were appointed by Edwards in June, while one spot remains vacant.

The other investigation Townsend was hired to conduct was closed in July without much explanation. That probe centered on whether troopers' money was being funneled to candidates through an independent organization, the Louisiana State Troopers Association, a group that collects dues from troopers and whose stated mission is to act as a benevolent group to aid troopers.

The investigation also focused on whether current troopers, some of whom sit on the LSTA board, had any role in deciding who got the campaign contributions.

The LSTA, which had not made a political endorsement in recent memory, publicly threw its support behind Edwards during the governor's race last year.

The political donations, totaling some $53,000 since 2003, were made to various candidates by the LSTA's director, David Young, a civilian, according to Ethics Administration data.

Young was reimbursed by the LSTA — which is partially funded by troopers' money — for the campaign contributions. Young acknowledged the arrangement but said there was nothing improper about it.

Some retired troopers, like Leon Millet, have said the payments were suspicious and were made without the knowledge of most LSTA members, and that the LSTA is not supposed to be involved in political campaigns.

W. Lloyd Grafton, a State Police Commission member, said in January that the money trail from the LSTA through Young, who was reimbursed by the LSTA, raised questions.

“It looks like someone was trying to circumvent something,” Grafton said.

Townsend found no wrongdoing in the LSTA probe. Still, the situation presented enough of a potential problem that Edwards distanced himself from it. In January, after the arrangement was publicized, Edwards provided records to The Advocate showing he returned to the LSTA $9,500 that he'd been paid by Young.

Townsend has not issued a final report — as he did in the parallel probe in April — into his findings regarding the LSTA investigation. However, he said Thursday he would consider reviewing a request by a retired trooper that he generate a report.

"If the rule calls for that, that's what I'm going to do," he said.

So far, the only indication of Townsend's findings in the LSTA investigation came in brief statements he made at public meeting of the State Police Commission in July. He said then that the commission has no jurisdiction over the LSTA, which is a private entity, or Young, a civilian. Townsend added that "any activity that individual troopers engaged in, they did it on the advice of their counsel."

The LSTA investigation generated significant buzz among troopers, many of whom showed up at commission meetings when the matter was being discussed. It was the first probe conducted by the commission in recent memory, Derbonne said.

Current troopers haven't spoken publicly about the issue. Some retired troopers, like Millet, say that's likely because they're afraid of the negative consequences of speaking out. 

But the group of retired troopers who have been vocal about the matter say they're irritated that their money, and the benevolent group they once took pride in, is mixed up in politics.

Retired trooper Tanny Devillier, who said he helped create the LSTA in 1969, said in January the group wasn't intended to be a political lobbying outfit that funds candidates. He said the LSTA has been deceptive, noting that the campaign contributions came out of the organization's “miscellaneous” fund.

Young confirmed the funds were labeled "miscellaneous" in the LSTA's budget.

As Devillier sees it, categorizing the political donations as "miscellaneous" serves as "a camouflage to deceive the general public.”

Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.