Jeff Landry, the freshman GOP congressman from New Iberia, spent last Wednesday wowing supporters with his fiscal fortitude at the back door of the man he hopes to replace next year in the Congress. The Cade Community Center where the town hall meeting was held is at the very western edge of Landry's 3rd Congressional District, practically in spitting distance of the 7th Congressional District represented by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette.
Landry hasn't announced his intention to challenge Boustany on Nov. 6, but all indications are that he will, and he's been trying to build his brand in Southwest Louisiana - by attending town hall meetings in Lafayette and Lake Charles with his apparent mentor, Sen. David Vitter (and other events), and by firing off a regular stream of email press releases via his Washington office to newspapers in Boustany's district. He's also done it utilizing what's known among members of Congress as his franking privilege - that is, using taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of keeping in touch with his constituents back home by a number of means, including mass mailings, robocalls and newspaper inserts. It's that last category that could make Landry the subject of a congressional ethics probe.
An antique term for signature, the frank was established during the Continental Congress and originally referred to a congressional member substituting his signature for a stamp. Since the 1990s federal law has prohibited members of Congress from using their frank to contact people outside their district, non-constituents in other words. But Landry did just that late last year when his office paid nearly $1,000 to insert a "Year End Report" in The Independent, which circulates almost exclusively in Lafayette Parish, AKA Boustany's district. The insert was purchased three weeks after The Ind featured Landry on our cover in an article critical of what we characterized as his boorish behavior, notably his holding that "DRILLING = JOBS" sign during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress last September. (Bumper stickers based on the sign are now being sold, and the phrase figures prominently in the insert. In fairness, drilling does equal jobs. But so do supermarkets, hog farms and porn shops.) The insertion was purchased by Littlefield Consulting Services out of Alexandria, Va.
A thousand bucks isn't much in federal government terms - the cost of printing the folded, glossy, full-color insert no doubt is much more than actually inserting it in newspapers and would also have been paid for by the franking privilege - but Landry's political raison d'etre is out-of-control Washington spending, and blowing a couple grand to reach virtually none of his constituents runs afoul of that theme. And more important than the cost is whether Landry broke federal law. We think he did.
'NO WAY THEY COMPLIED WITH THE LAW'
Congressional communications via items like newspaper inserts in quantities of 500 or more are reviewed by the Franking Commission, a bi-partisan body that's part of the House of Representatives' Committee on House Administration. The Franking Commission's job is to ensure such items conform to their intended purpose: communicating with constituents, keeping them apace of the issues and developments in Congress as opposed to campaigning or politicking. (The insert in question, we must observe, reads much more like a push card than a year-end report.) House members must submit a sample of the item they want covered by the franking privilege. The House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards reviews said items and issues an advisory opinion on whether the item is frankable. If it is, the cost of producing and disseminating it is paid for by us, the taxpayers. Moreover, lawmakers are required to indicate in their franking application that the item will be distributed in their own districts. There's a manual, "Regulations on the use of the Congressional Frank by Members of the House of Representatives" that spells it all out in about 70 mind-numbing pages.
Rep. Jeff Landry's 3rd Congressional District,
skirts the edge of Lafayette Parish where
The Independent is distributed. Only one
Ind distribution point - at the Mel's Diner on U.S. 90
- is in the 3rd CD, and barely at that.
We know the insert was paid for with tax dollars because it bears the disclaimer, "Paid for by official funds authorized by the House of Representatives," which cleaves somewhat obliquely to an admonishment in the Franking Manual: "Public law 104-197, enacted in 1996, requires that all mass mailings bear the following disclaimer statement: This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense,' or a notice to the same effect..." The disclaimer on Landry's insert avoids the phrase "at taxpayer expense," which is kryptonite to the far right, but "funds authorized by the House of Representatives" is something to that effect.
But here's a catch: While the Franking Commission is in charge of reviewing materials, it doesn't review where the material is being distributed. It's more or less an honor system. The panel does, however, routinely remind lawmakers via a newsletter about the various rules regarding the franking privilege, chiefly that franked materials cannot be distributed 90 days before an election the lawmaker is a candidate in and that the material must be for his or her constituents.
Constituent communications also fall under the broader scope of the Committee on House Administration. The "Members' Handbook" issued by the CHA related to newspaper inserts reads, "Ordinary and necessary expenses related to the production and distribution of newspaper inserts are reimbursable. The content must be in compliance with the Franking Regulations (emphasis ours)."
Meanwhile over in the Franking Manual: "A Member of the House of Representatives may not send any mass mailing outside the congressional district from which the member was elected."
Some may be willing to quibble over whether a newspaper insert constitutes a mass mailing, but a source in Washington, D.C., with intimate knowledge of the franking process isn't one of them: "There's no way they complied with the law; it's so black and white," says the source, who asked not to be identified for this story due to the apparent illegality of the situation. "He's a freshman [congressman], but I can't imagine you can make that kind of mistake - he couldn't be that ignorant of the law. There's clearly a problem here - a major problem."
The insert itself is fairly innocuous with a few photos of Landry (one of which shows him on the KLFY news set with Blue Rolfes, a popular TV figure in Lafayette mm-hmm) and headers like "Cosponsors Pro-Life Legislation," "Leading a House Coalition in Blocking the President's Nominees" and "Cosponsors Legislation to Strip Members of Congress from Their Pensions" - pablum intended to tickle the political palates of Landry's far-right base.
The glossy, full-color "Year End Report" distributed
to constituents at the end of 2011 enumerates
Landry's conservative credentials and
reinforces his "DRILLING = JOBS" mantra,
which can now be seen emblazoned on bumper stickers.
Landry ran the same insert in The Daily Iberian, his hometown newspaper and one that serves a fair swath of his 3rd Congressional District. That's perfectly legal and above board - the Iberian reaches his constituents. He could also legally run the insert in any paper that circulates primarily in the 3rd Congressional District. But not, according to our source, in The Independent or The Daily Advertiser, the latter of which he also used as a vessel for the insert.
Millard Mulé, Landry's communications director and the source of the near-daily official emails we get at The Ind, deflected questions about the legality of the insert to the Franking Commission: "Franking approved everything on our end. If you have a question that would be a Franking [Commission] question."
Steve Dutton, the Franking Commission's press secretary, was of little help: "I have looked into this and without knowing all of the details regarding this particular matter I can't give definitive guidance," he replied in an email response late last week.
Why in the first place would a congressman from southeast Louisiana need to generate name recognition outside his district? Because next year Boustany and Landry will share the same district. Landry's 3rd CD will cease to exist in 2013 due to Louisiana's loss of one of its seven U.S. House districts as a result of the 2010 census, an issue that was settled once and for all last month when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Louisiana's appeal. Landry's hometown of New Iberia will be absorbed into Boustany's southwest Louisiana 7th CD, which next year will become known as the 3rd Congressional District. In effect Landry is losing his congressional district. He wants to remain a congressman. The pay is pretty good - $174,000 per year - and the power and prestige are even better. To keep the perks and the paycheck Landry will need to beat Boustany head to head this November. So he's eager to build name recognition in Boustany's turf. And the time line is perfect: If Landry can beat Boustany this fall he could serve a two-year term in the House, remain in the political spotlight, spread his brand west across South Louisiana and then run against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014, a contest many political watchers have been anticipating - several of whom believe Landry could win. If he opts not to go after Boustany, Landry will be out of the political spotlight for at least a year before ramping up a campaign against Landrieu.
But Landry has yet to publicly commit to running against Boustany. "I don't know; that's a question for Jeff," says Mulé.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, has announced
his intention to seek re-election this fall. His likely
opponent is hard-charging House colleague Jeff Landry.
Landry Chief of Staff Phillip Joffrion insists the insert was done in good faith and suggests this story is really about bias on our part. "Y'all aren't a conservative-based paper - we know that. I think all of Acadiana knows that," he says. "I'll never know what your motive is for trying to put this story together, but to be honest with you I don't believe that we violated the franking rules; I don't think that we violated the spirit of the rules. It was with good intentions that The Independent services the 3rd Congressional District. Again as recently as this week we found racks within St. Martin Parish, which is entirely within the current 3rd Congressional District and reaches our constituents."
Truth be told, we do have a single distribution rack in St. Martin Parish - at the Mel's Diner on U.S. 90, about 500 yards into the 3rd Congressional District. So there's that.
Boustany was unavailable for comment for this story, but Neal Patel, his communications director who handles press inquiries, was blunt when asked about Landry's possible franking violation.
"These are very serious allegations that must be handled accordingly by the Franking Commission, and if need be, the Office of Congressional Ethics," Patel writes in an email response. "The purpose and intent of the frank is for members of Congress to correspond with and be held accountable to constituents within the district they represent. Above all else, it must never be forgotten this interaction is a privilege afforded to Congress through the use of taxpayer dollars."
"I'm surprised someone hasn't raised issue with this before," adds our Beltway source, who doesn't believe the Landry camp can claim ignorance of the law for the transgression.
Patel is more frank: "These antics are exactly the type of self-promoting behavior hard-working Americans are tired of seeing in Washington."
By all appearances Landry is a competent albeit feverishly conservative congressman. If he beats Boustany this fall - the race could be seen as a referendum on the Tea Party, which made minced meat of many a mainstream Republicans in the 2010 GOP primaries but, according to numerous polls, has fallen into disfavor with a majority of Americans - Southwest Louisiana will lose a lot of seniority and the plum committee assignments that go along with Boustany's four terms in office and close relationship with House Speaker John Boehner.
But that's a big if. Rep. Landry may be lugging the baggage of an ethics investigation by the time November rolls around.