WASHINGTON >> Louisiana’s biggest corporate players, many with long agendas before the state government, are restricted in making campaign contributions to Gov. Bobby Jindal. But they can give whatever they like to the foundation set up by his wife just months after he took office.
AT&T, which needed Jindal, a Republican, to sign off on legislation allowing the company to sell cable television services without having to negotiate with individual parishes, has pledged at least $250,000 to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children.
Marathon Oil, which last year won approval from the Jindal administration to increase the amount of oil it can refine at its Louisiana plant, also committed to a $250,000 donation. And the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which got state officials to help set up an airplane maintenance facility at a former Air Force base, promised $10,000 to the charity.
The foundation has collected nearly $1 million in previously unreported pledges from major oil companies, insurers and other corporations in Louisiana with high-stakes regulatory issues, according to a review by The New York Times.
It is among the newest of charities set up by elected officials, including members of Congress, or their families that are mutually beneficial: Companies seeking to influence politicians or curry favor can donate unrestricted amounts of money, while the officials benefit from the good will associated with charitable work financed by businesses.
Jindal has made tightening Louisiana’s ethics rules a centerpiece of his administration and has promised to crack down on the influence of special interests. But Anne Rolfes, founding director of an environmental group called Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the donations to the charity compromise the governor’s pledge.
“It may be a good cause, but it creates the appearance he is being bribed,” Rolfes said. “And if you are truly committed to ethical behavior, you just need to stay away from it all together.”
Supriya Jindal has won praise — and frequent positive newspaper coverage — as she travels Louisiana passing out free equipment to schools, many in lower-income areas. Her foundation spends almost all of the money it takes in to buy high-tech “white boards” installed so far in 50 schools.
While the charity is named and led by her, the governor has not entirely distanced himself from it: a photo of him standing alongside his wife appears on a corporate solicitation page on the foundation website, and his chief fundraiser is listed as the charity’s treasurer on its most recent tax return.
A state employee from the governor’s office who serves as an aide to Supriya Jindal manages the foundation’s books.
A spokesman for the governor said he had not personally intervened to help any of the charity’s corporate donors advance their agendas before the state government. Any suggestion that the foundation is a way to lobby the governor is ridiculous, Jindal’s press secretary said.
“It is a completely nonpolitical, nonpartisan organization created by the first lady, who as an engineer and the mother of three children, has a passion for helping our young people learn science and math,” said Kyle Plotkin, the press secretary. “Anything other than this reality has plainly been dreamed up by partisan hacks living in a fantasy land.”
A review of the donors shows the broad range of regulatory power that the governor and his administration holds over these companies, which otherwise are limited in making a maximum contribution of $5,000 per election to Jindal, or $10,000 for certain political action committees.
Dow Chemical, which has pledged $100,000 to the foundation, is the largest petrochemical company in Louisiana and has had numerous interactions with state officials during the Jindal administration, including an investigation into a July 2009 spill at its St. Charles Parish plant that forced the evacuation of dozens of homes. The state in December 2009 proposed fining the company and its Union Carbide subsidiary for allowing the release of a toxic pollutant and failing to quickly notify state authorities of the leak, but so far no fine has been assessed.
Alon USA, an Israeli oil company that has pledged $250,000 to the Jindal Foundation, last year sought permit changes that would allow it to discharge more pollutants at its Krotz Springs refinery. In 2009, state environmental officials also eased requirements for the company to check for spills of oil, ammonia or other contaminants in waterways to twice a month, instead of twice a week, records show.
Jeff Morris, Alon USA’s president, said his company expected no special favors in return for its contributions to the Jindal Foundation or other charities.
“I can understand how people might be concerned, when you have a congressman or others who have their own charities,” he said. “But that is not the case here. It is apparent that the children of Louisiana have been blessed by Supriya’s involvement.”
Paul Weeditz, a spokesman for Marathon Oil, said the company had long supported schools near its Louisiana refinery and found the charity a good fit with its philanthropy. The pledge is “absolutely not” related to the company’s regulatory agenda, he said.
Several of the charity’s major donors are large state contractors, like Acadian Ambulance, or D&J Construction, which alone has received $67.6 million in contracts since 2009, mostly for highways, said a separate report on the foundation being issued this week by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Both companies have pledged at least $10,000 to the foundation.
Ethics watchdog groups say the contributions are no accident.
“The motives might be good,” said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which has also examined public records detailing the operations of the charity. “But the donations that come in to charities like this are almost always from folks who want something from a politician. It is a troubling phenomenon.”
So far, the Jindal Foundation, started in July 2008, has spent about $1 million and installed about 170 interactive whiteboards that Supriya Jindal, trained as a chemical engineer, calls “revolutionized chalkboards for the 21st century,” at a cost of around $6,000 per classroom, including about 30 handheld devices for students, a laptop for the teacher and training.
The devices, which allow teachers to download multimedia lesson plans to help teach math or science, are made by a British company, Promethean, and installed by its Louisiana distributor, AXI Education. Other state and federal funds — and donations — have paid for installation of about 13,000 of the whiteboards at schools across the state, said Dale Viola, AXI’s president.
“This is not a publicity stunt,” Viola said of Supriya Jindal’s efforts to install more of the devices. “I have never seen someone so dedicated to a cause.”
Alexandra Bautsch, the governor’s top political fund raiser, is listed as the charity’s treasurer. Bautsch has continued to be paid by Bobby Jindal’s campaign — $112,500 last year. But none of the charity’s officers, including Supriya Jindal, were paid for their work.
In recent years, foundations linked to more than a dozen members of Congress have routinely accepted donations from businesses seeking to influence them. In some instances, the lawmakers have intervened with federal agencies or taken up legislation on donors’ behalf.
Sloan argues that elected officials like Jindal should be prohibited from having close ties with a charity that uses their name or image to help collect donations while they are in office, particularly if the donors have business before the state. At a minimum, all contributions should be disclosed, she said.
“Foundations tied to politicians see their donations dry up when the politician is no longer in power,” Sloan said. “That demonstrates the real reason the charities get the donations is their political position, not because of the good works they do.”