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A Family Comes to Rep. Young’s Defense

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A wealthy Louisiana businessman and his family used a dozen corporate entities to contribute a total of $60,000 to a defense fund to help Rep. Don Young fight his legal battles, which some critics say circumvented the $5,000 limits for individual donations.

Gary Chouest, the president of Edison Chouest Offshore, a marine transportation company, and other family members control 12 entities that each made $5,000 contributions to the Alaska Republican’s legal expense fund in the first quarter of this year.

The fund’s trustee submitted a quarterly report to the Ethics Committee on April 20 detailing the donations the fund received. The report lists the same post office box address in Galliano, La., for nine of the Chouest-linked entities while the other three have nearby addresses.

The contributions from the Chouest family accounted for the largest share of the $92,000 that Young collected in the first three months of this year for his legal defense fund.

House rules state that legal expense funds cannot accept more than $5,000 in a calendar year from any individual or organization.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, suggested that Chouest was trying to get around those limits by making donations from his various subsidiaries.

“It does appear to be a classic evasion of contribution limits,” Holman said. He said the House Ethics Committee should investigate the contributions and find out who wrote the checks from each of the entities.

However, Stan Brand, an attorney who specializes in campaign finance and ethics issues, said it was not clear that these contributions violated House limits even if they were owned by the same family.

“I think the presumption is that they are separate organizations until proven otherwise,” he said.

Filings with the Louisiana secretary of state show that Gary Chouest is an officer or agent of eight of the entities that made contributions. The other four enterprises list other family members as officers including Dino Chouest, Damon Chouest and Dionne C. Austin, who is also listed as Dionne Chouest Austin.

Five of the ventures that made contributions are also listed as subsidiaries of Edison Chouest Offshore on its company website.

It is not clear what the Chouests’ connection to Young is, although as a senior member and former chairman of both the Transportation and Infrastructure and the Natural Resources panels, the Congressman is in position to have significant influence over issues of importance to the families’ companies. Young’s Congressional office referred questions to an official with Young’s legal defense fund, who did not return phone calls requesting comment. Chouest company officials did not respond either.

Over the years, the Chouest family has been financially generous to the Alaska Congressman.

Eleven members of the Chouest family have given more than $100,000 to Young’s political action committee since 2000, more than to any other candidate or party, including in their home state of Louisiana, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of Federal Election Commission contributions.

In the last election cycle, 10 Chouest family members each wrote a check for the maximum $4,800 to Young’s campaign. The contributions were all recorded on the same day: Feb. 3, 2010.

The Chouests have also supported other Alaska Republicans including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has collected $40,000 from the family since 2000, and the Alaska Republican Party, which received $45,000 during that period.

The privately held business was started in 1960 as Edison Chouest Boat Rentals and has grown, according to its website, into “the most diverse and dynamic marine transportation operation in the world.”

“The company owns and operates a growing fleet of new generation offshore service vessels supporting a vast majority of the U.S. Gulf deepwater market, as well as a large independently owned fleet of research vessels,” the website states.

According to one report, Chouest has built ships able to navigate Alaskan waters for Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the parent company of Shell Oil Co. In 2009 a company subsidiary, Offshore Service Vessels, won a federal contract worth almost $3.6 million from the Navy’s Military Sealift Command for an East Coast surface support vessel, according to Bloomberg.

The company was also active in the Gulf of Mexico cleanup following the BP oil spill last year, at one point joining up with a venture led by actor Kevin Costner.

Gary Chouest, a minority owner of the New Orleans Hornets basketball team, had considered becoming a majority owner of the team last year but backed away.

Young opened his defense fund in 2008 in response to several legal battles.

In one case, federal officials were looking into his ties with Anchorage oil field services company VECO Corp. Company executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith had made illegal contributions to his campaign, which were used for the Congressman’s annual pig roast. Young’s campaign attempted to repay VECO for the pig roast, but the check was never cashed.

Authorities were also looking into an earmark sought by a developer for a highway interchange in Florida that was put in the highway bill when Young was chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2005. The developer held a $40,000 fundraiser for Young.

Last August, Young issued a press release stating that the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section “has concluded their investigation and declined prosecution of Congressman Young.”

Alex Knott contributed to this report.

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