BATON ROUGE, La. — A top fund-raiser for Gov. John Bel Edwards was hired this year by a commission looking into whether state troopers, and members of the commission itself, made improper donations to Edwards’ 2015 campaign.
The Advocate (http://bit.ly/2bVhRoV ) reports that attorney Taylor Townsend of Natchitoches (NACK’-uh-tish) has a $75,000 contract with the State Police Commission, which hears trooper complaints and evaluates allegations of trooper misconduct.
Edwards’ executive counsel, Matthew Block, said Edwards didn’t know the commission hired Townsend until after it happened.
Commission executive director, Cathy Derbonne, said Townsend was contracted because of his reputation. She said the hiring was not initiated by Edwards’ office.
Three commissioners stepped down after Townsend found they made unlawful contributions.
In another investigation, Townsend found no wrongdoing in donations to candidates by the Louisiana State Troopers Association.
Townsend is a former Democratic state representative who was also recently hired by the governor for potentially lucrative work on lawsuits against oil and gas companies over coastal damage.
The governor’s office has denied allegations of political favoritism in Townsend’s hiring for that work.
Townsend heads the Democratic governor’s 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.
Ethics experts interviewed by The Advocate were divided over the hiring of Townsend by the State Police Commission.
“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.
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,” 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.
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.
Townsend found no wrongdoing in the LSTA probe. But, 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.
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com