Louisiana Rep. Jeff Landry’s single largest office expense during the third quarter of last year was $30,000 for radio ads promoting meetings outside his current district but within a redrawn one where he may battle a fellow House Republican should he run for a second term.
Members are largely restricted from using official funds to promote, host or advertise events that do not directly serve their constituents. However, guidance from the House Administration Committee, the franking commission and the House Ethics Committee gives lawmakers enough leeway to at times fund events outside their districts.
But government watchdog group Public Citizen said Landry’s hefty expenditure to publicize an event in a neighboring district gives “every appearance” of breaking the rules.
“Thirty thousand taxpayer dollars were spent by Landry for an event that was outside his district, which may or may not have benefited any of his constituents,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.
Landry’s office paid the same consulting firm that handles his political advertisements $33,994.50 for radio spots for two forums he was attending to discuss the federal debt ceiling with Republican Sen. David Vitter. The events were held in Lake Charles and Lafayette, La., which rest squarely within the neighboring district of Rep. Charles Boustany (R).
“Your Congressman Jeff Landry would like you to know that the forum will be held on Thursday, Aug. 25,” one ad stated before giving the time and address. “He and Sen. Vitter will discuss efforts to combat the national debt, its effect on jobs and other concerns.”
Though Landry hasn’t yet officially declared a run against Boustany — the filing deadline for Louisiana isn’t until Aug. 17 — a challenge is widely expected. The race would pit Boustany, who is close with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and the Republican establishment, against the tea-party-affiliated freshman. Landry has burnished his conservative credentials during his short tenure in Congress and already has the backing of the powerful tea party group FreedomWorks PAC.
Louisiana lost one House seat as a result of reapportionment following the 2010 census. A redistricting plan signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in April combined portions of Boustany’s southwestern district with parts of Landry’s, in the southeastern corner of the state.
A major point of contention between Landry and Boustany will likely be last summer’s Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling. Landry voted against the act while Boustany, along with the GOP leadership, was in favor of it. The events with Vitter — who also voted against the measure — were held in the wake of the marquee legislation.
Landry’s office characterized the events as forums on the debt ceiling that the lawmaker attended but did not co-host. A representative said the radio spots informed constituents of his schedule, which happened to include events outside his district.
“As detailed in the radio ad, Congressman Landry was Sen. Vitter’s guest at the debt forum. Congressman Landry is proud to have represented his constituents and, like Sen. Vitter, vote against the Washington debt deal and disastrous Super Committee,” Communications Director Millard Mulé said in an email.
The House Administration Committee, the franking commission and the House Ethics Committee all provide guidance about when and where Members can use official funds.
The Members’ Congressional Handbook, for example, states that a lawmaker can be reimbursed for the costs associated with joint town hall meetings they co-host with a home-state Senator, but “the meeting must take place within the House Members’ district.” Vitter’s office at the time of the forums described Landry’s role as co-host — a characterization that Landry’s office now disputes.
The Members’ handbook also requires that lawmakers use official funds only to advertise the “notice of personal appearance at an official event, which the Member sponsors and hosts in support of the conduct of the Member’s official and representational duties to the district from which he or she is elected.”
Landry’s office said the radio spots weren’t ads but a public notification of the lawmaker’s schedule — a permissible use of House funds, a House Administration representative confirmed.
“Within the rules and guidelines put forth by the franking commission, the commission approved the radio advertisement that was run to inform our constituents of the event,” Landry Chief of Staff Phillip Joffrion said.
Public Citizen said the explanations don’t pass muster.
“When you focus on one event it’s an ad for the event, it’s not publishing a schedule. Had he distributed an actual schedule, he might have had a little bit of an argument, although that’s still an awfully expensive waste of taxpayer dollars,” Holman said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.