Over the Limit

by Jeremy Alford

Lafayette Republican State Rep. Don Trahan took more than $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions leading up to the Oct. 20 election.

State Rep. Don Trahan, a Lafayette Republican recently re-elected by a slim 33-vote margin, has violated state campaign finance laws. A review of Trahan's campaign finance reports reveals that more than $23,000 worth of political action committee contributions were treated as individual gifts and deposited during the most recent election cycle, even though the money should have been returned. The PACs allegedly mistaken for individual or business donors had names like EASTPAC, NORTHPAC, SOUTHPAC, Soft Drink PAC, LUPAC and SUGAR PAC.

When asked about the funds, Trahan issued a prepared statement to the Independent Weekly. He says that an inexperienced staffer unknowingly misidentified contributions from political action committees. Trahan did not identify the staffer or indicate how these mistakes managed to go unnoticed. "Those errors were all clerical in nature and consisted primarily of inconsistencies in designating PAC expenditures," Trahan says in his written statement. "We are in the process of correcting these errors."

In a telephone interview, Randy Hayden, Trahan's campaign manager, did not refute the PAC figures, which exceed the legal limit for such donations by at least 40 percent. He says the campaign contacted the state Ethics Board on its own recently and plans on returning any PAC contributions that were accepted over the legal limit.

Although the PAC threshold covers a four-year span ' basically a lawmakers' term in office ' the pattern of crossing the legal limit emerges in Trahan's reports during the weeks leading up to his Oct. 20 showdown with independent Nancy Landry.

During the month of September, Trahan was already nearing the mandated $60,000 PAC limit, meaning his campaign would soon have to stop taking donations from special interests ' at a time when polls showed Trahan and Landry in a dead heat. In all, $6,500 worth of PAC donations from health care groups and business associations were incorrectly listed in September. These inconsistencies brought Trahan's PAC total to $61,631, or $1,631 over the legal limit. Then in October, the same discrepancies occurred: PAC contributions were not correctly identified on Trahan's report ' only this time to the tune of $20,757. Committees formed by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry alone gave Trahan $14,500 in October.

As for fines and penalties Trahan may be facing, Kathleen Allen, a lead attorney for the state Ethics Board, says such violations carry a fine of $5,000 or the amount not reported correctly, whichever is greater. The figure is doubled if the mistakes were knowingly made. There could also be a "per day fine" for every mistake made for every day it went unchanged. All of those decisions are made at the discretion of the board, which has earned a reputation in recent years for waiving or decreasing fines.

"I fully expect this matter will be cleared up within the next few days and the corrections will be included in an amended report to be delivered to the campaign finance office by Dec. 27," says Trahan.