LEBLANCS DEFEND COMPANY TIED TO TEXAS SCANDAL A Lafayette company headed by brothers Michael and Patrick Leblanc has turned up in the middle of a public corruption investigation centered on the Bexar County Sheriff's Office in west Texas. Sheriff Ralph Lopez was recently indicted on three misdemeanor charges related to unreported benefits he received from the Leblancs' company, Premier Management Enterprise. Lopez took an all-expenses-paid golfing/fishing trip to Costa Rica with the Leblancs, at a time when Premier was vying for a lucrative contract to run the county jail's commissary stores.

Court filings also show that one of the sheriff's close associates, John Reynolds, appears to have laundered money from Premier into his own personal bank account, through a fraudulent charity scholarship organization named Optimists.

"We were duped," says Pat Leblanc. "I really don't know the whole length and breadth of the story, but I can tell you this: If somebody played funny with our money, I want to prosecute them to the end of the world."

Leblanc, who is a candidate for District 43 state representative, also distanced himself from the company, which he says is primarily run by his brother and another associate, Ian Williamson. Michael Leblanc says he is working closely with investigators and anticipates the entire issue should soon be resolved. "Unfortunately, we didn't know who this guy was," he says, referring to Reynolds. "Shame on us."

While it appears Premier is unlikely to face any charges from the investigation, the circumstances surrounding its contract with the Bexar County jail have certainly created a perception of quid pro quo. The district attorney has labeled Lopez's golf trip as an honorarium that "was in consideration for services that the defendant would not have been requested to provide but for defendant's official position and duties."

Lopez began pushing to farm out the county jail's commissaries to Premier in 2005. Initially the idea met resistance from the board of the "Benevolent Fund" ' a nonprofit Lopez had set up to manage the commissaries several years ago. One board member, Amadeo Ortiz ' who now is running against Lopez for sheriff ' commissioned a background report that was critical of Premier and another Leblanc company. After Ortiz resigned, the issue came up again. The board approved moving ahead with a six-month trial contract with Premier in August 2005. The vote came at a special meeting held while two board members were out of town. Reynolds was elected chairman of the board at the same meeting.

A few weeks after that meeting, the Leblancs took both Lopez and Reynolds on the trip to Costa Rica. Sheriff Lopez has stated the trip, which John Reynolds also attended, was a private conference unrelated to any county business.

Pat Leblanc says the conference addressed security issues related to one of the Leblancs' private prisons in Alabama. In addition to Premier, the Leblancs own LCS Prisons, the fifth largest prison system in the U.S. with facilities across the Gulf Coast region.

"In our jail business, we hold conferences with various law enforcement agencies to discuss security and issues having to do with operation. That was the basis of the trip," says Pat Leblanc. He adds the business also "routinely entertains clients. We take them fishing and we take them golfing," he says. "That's business culture; everybody in the business world does that. All the service companies here do it."

Premier signed its six-month contract with the Benevolent Fund's board in October 2005, and in the months following made a total of $27,500 in contributions to charities now known to be controlled by Reynolds. The district attorney's office has bank records showing that Reynolds transferred the funds into his personal account. Reynolds is yet to be called before a grand jury.

For his part, Sheriff Lopez, a Democrat, has maintained that he is the victim of a "political witch hunt" by the Republican district attorney. Premier's Texas-based attorney, Tonya Webber, issued the following statement on behalf of her clients:

"Neither PME nor any of its employees or principals has engaged in any misconduct. While both the company and the Leblancs typically make charitable and political contributions they had every reason to believe that any such charities were legitimate and that all contributions or benefits were reported by the recipients as required by law."

Pat Leblanc says that in hindsight, his company was too trusting of the Brexar County officials. "We're out of towners," he says. "We're not from that area. We went in, we sold our service; they wanted us to do the commissary service. We operate a good, clean business and to think that we might have been taken advantage of in that regard just turns my stomach." ... ROMERO GETTING OUT OF POLITICS? Term-limited Iberia Parish Sen. Craig Romero says he's definitely not going to get into the race for parish president. Despite persistent rumblings that he is planning to jump into race for the top local job, or switch chambers and run as the state representative from District 49, Romero says no. "I'm not running for anything," he says. "I'm enjoying life and taking care of my children."

A poll conducted two weeks ago pointedly inquired how Iberia Parish voters felt about Romero's tenure as parish president in the 1980s, and his work in the state Senate. Romero says he knows nothing about the poll. "I got calls at the beginning of the summer and earlier in the year. This is the third time this year [that] people wanted to know if I'm running a poll. I'm not running a poll."

After an unsuccessful race against Democrat Charlie Melancon for Congress last year, Romero says he is going to stay home and raise his seven children. While he says constituents are constantly asking him to stay in politics, he's serious about giving more time to his family. "There's not a place I go, day or night, and that's [politics] all people want to talk about, but I've got to think about my kids at the end of every day. And the beginning of every day. That's what really governs my life right now. I've got to spend as much time as I can with my children and my wife. I've been lucky I've had her 26 years in government, lucky because Pam doesn't get into politics. She doesn't care about any of that. She says take care of your kids. That's number one."

Contributors: Nathan Stubbs and Mary Tutwiler

... ATTACK ADS HEAT UP IN GOVERNOR'S RACE With the Oct. 20 election fast approaching, Louisiana voters are getting a heavy dose of ads pronouncing who NOT to vote for. The Jindal campaign, which has been the barb of cardboard cutout jokes in state Sen. Walter Boasso's ads, struck back last week with a commercial that depicts both Boasso and his fellow Democratic rival Foster Campbell as clowns not capable of turning around Louisiana's dysfunctional government. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Democratic Party is throwing everything it can at Jindal in hopes something will stick. Its latest ad dredged up religious essays Jindal wrote while studying at Oxford, selectively picking out phrases and taking them out of context to portray the Republican front runner as being anti-Protestant. The Jindal camp denounced the religious attack as a twisted ad that will only serve to anger voters. The state GOP sent out an e-mail proclaiming that the backlash had already begun, citing an editorial in The Ouachita Citizen titled "La. Democrats sink to new low." The state Democratic Party has defended the "Jindal on religion" ad by saying they are only pointing out Jindal's own writings, but this could cross the line for many voters... GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE GEORGES MULLING PARTY SWITCH Republican gubernatorial candidate John Georges got some encouraging signs in the latest poll conducted by Dr. Verne Kennedy's Market Research Insights. Kennedy's statewide poll of 600 likely voters, conducted Aug. 13-15, shows Georges with 56 percent name recognition; 24 percent of voters identified Georges as their second choice for governor and 44 percent said they would consider voting for Georges. "This is the first trial heat with any kind of movement, with more than 10 percent support and 50 percent name recognition after only three weeks of television [advertising]," says Georges, who was a virtual unknown in the race three months ago.

Successful businessman Georges is the wild card in the governor's race, in no small part due to his massive $7 million campaign war chest. And he's clearly unhappy with the Louisiana Republican Party, making the next two weeks leading up to Sept. 4-6 qualifying especially interesting. "The state Republican Party refuses to do any mailouts with my name on it," says Georges. "They're promoting only one Republican, and that's probably why Walter Boasso switched parties."

With that in mind, Georges is considering all his options. "I'm certainly keeping the party switch open," he says. "It depends; we're going to do a poll and see how many Republican votes I'd get.

"The big question," Georges continues, "is whether Louisiana voters would support an independent candidate." Georges also notes, "I'm getting a lot of love from the Democrats." ... THE RAGIN' CAJUN GOES TO BAT FOR LANDRIEU U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of New Orleans is supposedly the top-targeted Democrat up for re-election next year, so some of the Democratic Party's biggest names are rallying for Landrieu. Last week, uber-consultant James Carville signed a letter on behalf of Landrieu asking supporters to stay strong and pony up the dollars. "Mary Landrieu will be one of the most important names on the 2008 ballot, and she needs our help," Carville writes. "She deserves our help. She's at the top of my priority list of Democratic incumbents to support in the 2008 elections, and I'm hoping that she'll be on the top of yoursâ?¦ If there's a single race on the 2008 ballot where your contribution can make a difference, this is it." Donations are asked in the form of $25, $50 and $100 political gifts, although there is a postscript pointing out that a simple "$35 contribution will go a long way toward returning Mary Landrieu to the U.S. Senate in November 2008."