Daniel Edwards, the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana, pushed more than $100,000 this month into the reelection campaign of his brother, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, records show.
He gave $100,000 to the LA Democrats PAC Oct. 4 and the maximum $5,000 to the John Bel Edwards for Governor campaign Oct. 12, according to reports filed with the state’s Board of Ethics for Elected Officials.
The chief law enforcement officer in a thin strip of land with a population of 132,000 southeast of Baton Rouge, he has amassed a campaign war chest that topped $524,000 at the end of 2018 and left him with more than $476,000 less than two weeks before he cruised to reelection Oct. 12, records show.
The governor, who is seeking his second term, will face Republican Eddie Rispone in a runoff Nov. 16. Mr. Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman, is making his first bid for elected office and bankrolling it with more than $11.5 million of his own money.
Daniel Edwards’ campaign fundraising totals are remarkable for a sheriff in a parish that ranks 11th in Louisiana by population. His campaign in 2016, the first year his brother became governor, marked a huge haul when he took in $320,350 with tens of thousands of dollars coming from out-of-parish sources, records show.
At least $50,000 of that total came from out-of-parish lawyers involved in coastal erosion lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, ongoing litigation that has the support of the Edwards administration but does not involve Tangipahoa, which sits more than 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
“With these coastal litigation lawyers leading the charge in campaign spending, voters should know the facts about the candidates and the special interests supporting them,” said Lana Venable, the executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “The 15 law firms that are driving coastal litigation against Louisiana oil and gas companies have spent nearly $7 million to influence the outcome of state and local elections since the first trial lawyer-invented permit lawsuit was filed in 2013.”
While the contributions are legal, Louisiana experts and some elected officials said the process smacks of circumventing the state’s campaign finance laws and that it represents more of the “pay to play” politics that have dogged the Pelican State for decades.
“It smells a bit,” said Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel, who supports Mr. Rispone. “Louisiana has a long history of ‘pay-to-play’ politics, political players who make large contributions in the expectation of receiving something of immense value from a politician. In a way, these schemes take state funds and recycle them to the politicians. Such unethical actions are not isolated to Gov. Edwards, but his participation in their schemes are there for all to see.”
Using Daniel Edwards as a sort of conduit to send money to the governor’s reelection is another example of what Mr. Appel called “keep[ing] Edwards’ fingerprints off of the dirt.”
The Edwards campaign scoffed at such a notion and said they saw nothing newsworthy in his brother’s contribution. Sheriff Edwards has always been a formidable fundraiser, and while having a brother as governor may expand a politician’s mailing list, those looking to help the governor have easier and more direct ways of doing so than writing checks to Daniel Edwards, the campaign said.
“Sheriff Edwards has been a strong fundraiser going to back to when he first took office in 2004,¨ said Eric Holl, a campaign spokesman who noted multiple years in which the sheriff raised six figures in fundraising, some before John Bel Edwards ascended from the state legislature to the governor’s mansion.
Similar practices occur on the Republican side, Mr. Holl said.
“It’s normal for candidates of both parties to give large sums to their parties and organizations that support members of their party up and down the ballot,” he said. “That’s why political parties traditionally set up what’re called coordinated campaigns. For example: John Schroder, Mike Strain and Jeff Landry’s super PAC all gave large contributions to the Louisiana Republican Party this election cycle.”
Indeed, Sheriff Edwards in 2016 moved quickly to capitalize on his brother’s gubernatorial victory, holding a massive fundraiser July 18, a shindig still talked about in Louisiana political circles whose invitation stressed “special guest Gov. John Bel Edwards and first lady Donna Edwards.”
Daniel Edwards is not the only sheriff to raise considerable campaign funds, said the governor’s campaign team, which pointed to Sid Gautreaux, the sheriff in East Baton Rouge Parish. Mr. Gautreaux, whose parish has more than three times the population of Tangipahoa and is home to the state government and its flagship university, had just over $400,000 at the end of September, according to his campaign fundraising reports.
Louisiana Republicans, on the other hand, have a different take on the arrangement.
“Desperate to boost his struggling campaign, John Bel Edwards is funneling … money to his friends at Gumbo PAC and laundering cash from coastal lawsuit lawyers through his brother’s campaign account,” said Jason Harbison, communications director for the Louisiana GOP. “Louisiana voters are tired of watching career politicians cash checks while our local economy struggles.”
Gumbo PAC, with hundreds of thousands of dollars furnished by Louisiana lawyers, formed in 2015 to beat then-Sen. David Vitter, the Republican candidate who Mr. Edwards defeated that November.
Sheriff Edwards’ fundraising dwarfs most of his colleagues, according to filed reports.
By way of comparison, the sheriff in the parish on Tangipahoa´s eastern border, St. Tammany, with a population of more than 256,000 and a per-capita income almost 50 % higher, had $216,000 cash on hand 10 days before his hotly contested primary Oct. 12.
To the west of Tangipahoa Parish is Livingston, which has almost an identical population and where the sheriff reported having $117,536 cash on hand 30 days before the October primary, when Daniel Edwards had more than $459,000.
In many ways, Daniel Edwards’ campaign finance reports are like other Louisiana politicians, featuring contributions from local businesses and friends and spending on media buys and LSU season football tickets.
But his contributors list is also studded with names unfamiliar to those of similar office holders. For example, the politically connected engineering companies of the south shore, where below sea-level New Orleans requires permanent work, also donate to Daniel Edwards.
And many of the rich trial lawyers in the state´s lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, which attorneys hope will deliver a payday similar to that enjoyed in tobacco litigation and the BP oil spill, are also Daniel Edwards contributors, records show.
Louisiana has long been considered favorable territory for trial lawyers. Judicial Hellholes, one of the best-known national proponents of tort reform, ranks the state sixth nationally in that category.
With tort reform a key issue in Mr. Rispone’s campaign, trial lawyers are invested in Mr. Edwards’ reelection, providing much of the bankroll for entities such as Gumbo PAC that spent heavily supporting him in the primary.
“If the drastic tort reform proposals of the opponents of Gov. Edwards are enacted as law, the legal community will shrink dramatically, a fact that will impact all of us,” Baton Rouge trial attorney Kenneth Hooks wrote in an Oct. 17 fundraising email published by The Hayride, a conservative website.
“If you do not believe me, call any attorney in Texas. Or, should I say, call an insurance agent or used car salesman in Texas who used to practice law,” Mr. Hooks wrote.
Mr. Hooks then pleaded with trial lawyers to give the maximum they could directly to Mr. Edwards — $5,000 per election cycle — and then “only after you have maxed out to the [Edwards] campaign,” to give all they could to Gumbo PAC.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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