Business of Politics

Access Granted

by Jeremy Alford

The tales of two Louisiana tycoons show that government relations can pay off in a big way for business development.
In an effort to put a human face on his policy initiatives, Gov. Bobby Jindal peppered his speech for this year’s second special session with references to “real” Louisiana people. For instance, he invited Gary Chouest, owner of Edison Chouest Offshore and C-Logistics in Lafourche Parish, to stand in the House of Representatives during the oration. Jindal made a show of thanking the Louisiana entrepreneur for his ongoing economic development efforts. Several lawmakers jumped to their feet to show they, too, are thankful.

Chouest donated $100,000 last year to the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which was formed to forge a GOP takeover in the Legislature — an unrealized dream. Chouest, his companies and his family have also given Jindal tens of thousands of dollars over the years for congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. His daughter and general counsel, Dionne Chouest, served on one of Jindal’s workforce transition teams earlier this year. Another Chouest family company, Slam Dunk, purchased a 25 percent ownership in the New Orleans Hornets last year.

So why did Jindal give Gary Chouest a front row seat that evening? With a smile to his longtime friend, the governor announced that the state will commit $10 million to the Port of Terrebonne for its planned incorporation of LaShip, which is an Edison Chouest subsidiary. The development, which also had a footing in the previous administration of Democrat Kathleen Blanco, promises to bring in average salaries of $54,000. “One-thousand new jobs mean 1,000 more people — and their families — investing in the local economy, putting down roots in the community and pursuing their dreams right here at home,” Jindal noted.

By one definition, this is transparency at work, but it also shows the political reality that costly connections can yield prosperous results — even in the shadow of a historic shift in ethics regulation. It’s the same story at Acadian Ambulance. While it originally made a name for itself through ground services with its iconic green-and-white ambulances, Acadian Ambulance has diversified in recent years to monitoring, training, air charters and other services.

Luckily for Acadian, its upper brass has loads of government relations experience. The company’s success is at least partly rooted in its unique ability to become a partner with government in drafting the new regulations; it was the Lafayette Parish Police Jury that truly put Acadian on the map. When it first broke ground in the early 1970s, funeral homes in Louisiana were faced with strict new standards, and many shuttered their ambulance businesses. With no one else trying to step up in the void, Zuschlag — then a 23-year-old Pennsylvania transplant with limited hospital experience — put a few investors together and convinced the Lafayette Parish Police Jury to put them under contract.

The outfit gained instant credibility because Zuschlag kept expanding his ranks with medics returning from the Vietnam War. They all had “real blood-and-guts experience and knew what to do,” he says. With a working concept, Zuschlag branched out to the west and east, convincing parish governments that Acadian could pick up the slack. Acadian also established membership drives that were broadcasted live on local television stations. Area banks even got into the action, collecting fees at their branches for the company.

Along the way, Zuschlag also managed to get assistance from the state for training and other needs, and he learned how to get a spot at the table when local government is drafting policy. He likewise created what is now a standard among top Louisiana companies: a corporate political action committee, or PAC. In short, it’s used to channel money to politicians and campaigns. “And we do work hard to convince our employees to give to the company PAC,” he says.

Zuschlag is another rara avis in Louisiana’s modern political climate: he makes sure his political donations go to the pockets of both parties. According to campaign finance reports, Zuschlag has personally doled out nearly $10,000 in federal donations over the past year, including a $2,300 gift to Republican Sen. Max Baucus of Montana; $3,300 to local Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and $3,300 to local Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon; and roughly $2,900 to the failed presidential bid of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another Republican.

For folks like Chouest and Zuschlag, it’s just another cost of doing business, and they make no apologies.

“We’ve created an unofficial monopoly by going directly to government and telling them what we need and what ordinances need to be on the books,” Zuschlag says. “Local, state and federal politics are extremely important to us. We want to be close to those in power.”