John Fortunato has blanketed Jefferson Parish with campaign signs in recent months, going tit-for-tat in an advertising war with Sheriff Joe Lopinto. Some of the placards have even found their way into neighboring New Orleans, reminding commuters of next weekend's special election to fill the unexpired term of former Sheriff Newell Normand.
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But questions have emerged about the business printing the bulk of Fortunato's signs — a Texas company owned by Fortunato's son, John Fortunato Jr. It's an arrangement that experts say could violate campaign finance laws, in part because the company does not appear to be registered to do business in Louisiana.
New campaign finance reports show Fortunato has paid the business, WrapStars, of suburban Houston, at least $66,000 for signs since announcing his candidacy last fall. That figure represents roughly one-fourth of the $278,878 Fortunato spent in overall campaign expenditures through March 4.
The amount of money Fortunato has paid his son's company is irrelevant under campaign finance laws. But the transactions appear to fly in the face of rules governing the limited circumstances under which campaign dollars may be paid to a candidate's immediate family members.
One of the requirements is that a family member's business must be registered with the Secretary of State's Office and that the company have a record of "doing business regularly in the state for at least 12 months" before receiving payment from the campaign.
"When you start giving money to a business owned by an immediate family member, you have to be able to demonstrate that you qualify for these narrow exceptions," said Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council.
"You have a case here where the candidate may need to demonstrate that he's in compliance with the campaign finance laws," Scott added. "If he can't demonstrate that he's met these narrow exceptions, then that could raise a concern with the enforcement agencies."
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Campaign finance laws are enforced by the state Board of Ethics, but Scott noted that criminal violations can be pursued by state or federal authorities.
WrapStars does not appear to be registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office, though records show it registered in Texas in 2002.
The Fortunato campaign released a statement late Friday saying the younger Fortunato accepted the campaign sign orders online. The statement did not dispute that the company is not registered in Louisiana; it said the younger Fortunato "is in the process of creating WrapStars New Orleans with a gentleman named Lonnie Young."
The statement also sought to emphasize that the younger Fortunato has political clients other than his father.
"WrapStars in Texas is currently printing thousands of campaign signs for eight different political campaigns in the Houston area," the statement said. "John Jr. says he applied the same discount that he applies on all political or nonprofit work to his father's campaign."
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Fortunato said Friday that he does not know whether his son's business meets the requirements of state law to print signs for the campaign.
"I have no idea if he is (licensed in Louisiana) or not," he wrote in a text message. "But to be fair, I don't care if my opponent is buying signs from his cousin in Mississippi for the same amount of money that I'm paying. What matters to me is the safety and well-being of the citizens of Jefferson Parish."
Lopinto said he found the business relationship "disturbing" but not surprising. "It's part of a definite pattern of mismanagement that is typical of my opponent," the interim sheriff said. "Whether these mistakes are incompetence or abuse, they're really adding up."
Fortunato declined to provide specifics but said his son's company has provided the campaign signs at a rate far lower than local printing companies. He would not comment on the cost of shipping the materials from WrapStars, which is located in Spring, Texas, more than 350 miles from Jefferson Parish.
"It's saved me a lot of money," the elder Fortunato said in a telephone interview, "and I'm not going to talk about it beyond that."
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When it comes to campaigns doing business with a candidate's family members, Louisiana law also requires the value of goods or services provided to be "commensurate with the consideration provided." The law further states that payments to family members must be "made through an arm's length transaction," an accounting term that means all parties are acting in their own self-interest.
When those terms are not met, criminal charges can result, although such cases are exceptionally rare.
Walter Reed, the longtime former district attorney in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, was convicted on federal wire fraud charges based on allegations that he used campaign money to overpay his son for services that were either never rendered or that cost far less than Reed paid for them.
There is no allegation that the younger Fortunato has failed to deliver signs: The parish is covered with them.
Recent videos posted to Wrap Stars' Facebook page show the production of other yard signs, and at least one clip shows a stack of Fortunato signs. Wrap Stars' website describes its expertise as "Vehicle Wraps, Logo and Graphic Design, Electric Signs, Marketing, Sales, (and) Fabrication."
It's not clear what rate the elder Fortunato paid per sign because the campaign has not released receipts of the transactions.
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Scott, of the Public Affairs Research Council, said the campaign could be required to provide more details if the state ethics board decides to pursue the matter. The intent of the law, he said, is to prevent candidates from "circulating money through relatives in order to enrich themselves or their family members."
"Family members, a lot of times, want to help out with a campaign," Scott said. "The questions start to arise when you're actually spending money in their direction."
Fortunato has spent a significant chunk — roughly 24 percent — of his overall expenditures on campaign signs printed by his son's company.
Lopinto has spent more money on signs — about $95,000 — but that sum represents only about 10 percent of his total expenditures and was spread out to five companies, according to his most recent campaign finance reports.