July 21, 2015 11:17 AM

For the first time in the long history of Louisiana politics super PACS are poised to play a defining role in statewide elections as nearly every candidate for governor has an independent money group backing their efforts.

With barely any state guidelines in place, the super PAC teams are following federal regulations and case law that are largely untested in their own right.

The golden rule for super PACs, or political action committees, is that they can raise unlimited amounts of money, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, as long as they do not directly coordinate with the candidates and campaigns they support. At least that has been the general understanding heading into this brave new era.

But a closer review of how the campaigns and super PACs are operating in Louisiana this cycle reveals they are indeed communicating on certain levels, working together to raise money and in some cases pushing the boundaries of what may be acceptable.

Questioning a commercial

The first ethics complaint involving a super PAC in a state race has been filed with the Ethics Administration. It targets Louisiana Rising, which is promoting Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle’s gubernatorial bid.

Filed by businessman Duke Lowrie of Benton, the complaint alleges, among other accusations, that a television commercial (“One Of Us”) produced by Louisiana Rising used footage of Angelle wearing an official campaign sticker.

“Federal law prohibits independent expenditure-only PACs from coordinating with or disseminating materials distributed by a candidate, including official campaign signs, logos and candidate-endorsed advertisements,” Lowrie writes in the complaint.

It may not seem like much on paper, but a similar incident caused heartburn for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign last month when the Opportunity and Freedom PAC aired its commercial featuring Perry campaign signs and paraphernalia. The super PAC backing Jeb Bush, the Right To Rise PAC, went in another direction and has blurred such images in its ads.

Bill Skelly, who manages the pro-Angelle Louisiana Rising PAC, said he has not yet been made aware of the ethics complaint, but said the commercial was produced independently without any coordination with the Angelle campaign. Ryan Cross, Angelle’s campaign manager, said the same.

On the federal level, there is some precedent that may offer cover for the super PAC. The Federal Election Commission voted 4-2 in 2006 to clear Betty Sutton, a congressional candidate, of any wrongdoing when EMILY’s List used an official campaign photo, pulled from Sutton’s website, to produce a direct mail piece. But that was before the proliferation of super PACs.

State Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen said she could not confirm or deny the receipt of Lowrie’s ethics complaint. Lowrie said via email it was delivered by certified mail.

What amounts to coordination?

While illegal coordination between a campaign and super PAC may be difficult to prove, the first such federal criminal case was successfully prosecuted last month when the campaign manager for a failed congressional candidate admitted to helping a super PAC he had a hand in creating purchase $325,000 in advertising. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Candidates and staffers in Louisiana campaigns cannot communicate directly with their allied super PACs in regard to anything related to strategy, and cannot exchange any data or information of value. However, a campaign can communicate with a super PAC, under federal rules, to discuss fundraising-related scheduling.

“That’s the Readers Digest sort of summary that I’ve been playing by,” said Joel DiGrado, executive director of the Fund For Louisiana’s Future, which is supporting U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign for governor.

On the national level, that has created an interesting dynamic where campaigns are sometimes being forced to communicate their strategic needs to super PACs by using reporters. DiGrado said that’s preferable, compared to running afoul of the law.

“I’d rather them tell the press and I find out from there,” he said.

Bill Skelly of the Louisiana Rising PAC added, “People are always trying to be creative in this space. We’re relying on public correspondence and events to continue to promote Scott (Angelle) in permissible ways.”

Some campaigns have even considered posting their video b-roll, or unused footage from commercials, on public video sites like YouTube, which in theory would allow the super PACs or anyone else to use the film.

“We’ve had that conversation,” said Angelle campaign manager Ryan Cross.

Vitter, meanwhile, has seen staffers leave his campaign team to work for the Fund For Louisiana’s Future — and even one fundraiser who returned to the ranks following her super PAC work. Federal guidelines allow campaigns and super PACs to have common vendors in three different areas, including fundraising, legal representation and accounting/compliance.

Some, like Angelle’s super PAC and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s super PAC for his presidential bid, are being run out of the same firm that also handles the campaign’s fundraising. They only have to prove that there’s a firewall separating the operations.

A staffer involved in strategy can even leave a campaign and join an allied super PAC, but under federal guidelines the super PAC would not be able to spend money on advertising for 120 days, known as a blackout period.

The money game

Candidates cannot directly solicit money for the super PACs supporting them, but several donors have told LaPolitics that they have received soft pitches for the groups’ missions this cycle from candidates. The practice is allowable, as is the attendance of candidates at super PAC events.

Donors, for example, say they’ve heard suggestions from Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle personally about other ways to get financially involved in the governor’s race, including the Louisiana Rising super PAC, which the campaign confirmed. He merely points them in the direction of the PAC, but nothing more. Other candidates are using similar methods.

“As far as when Sen. (David) Vitter is asked about it, he explains there is an independent group called the Fund for Louisiana’s Future supporting him and that he and our campaign are not in any coordination with them, but they can get in touch with them to donate on their own,” said Luke Bolar, a Vitter spokesperson.

Sources say Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne has long rejected the idea of outside money from a super PAC. That may explain why the pro-Dardenne super PAC established by the Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies, Now Or Never—Louisiana PAC, has been slow coming out of the gate. Dardenne is said to be warming to the idea, though, and Brandon Moody, who is overseeing fundraising for Now Or Never, said via email that the super PAC is preparing to file its first report this month.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the lone Democrat among the top four candidates for governor, appears to be the only contender without an allied super PAC. But there is GUMBO PAC, run by Democratic consultant Trey Ourso. It bills itself as a nonpartisan clearinghouse for information about Vitter and has so far been the outfit taking the nastiest shots.

It has a billboard along I-10 in New Orleans with massive letters — ABV: Anybody But Vitter. It’s also raising money for a second set of billboards linking Vitter to Jindal.

“We’ve had some very generous donations from folks and some smaller donations from all over the state,” said Ourso. “What the PAC does will be dependent on the money, but direct mail and TV is part of the plan. It’s all budget driven.”