By Robert Mann
Sen. David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign has responded to my recent column about his alleged abuse of official U.S. Senate “field hearings” with a thinly veiled attack on Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
First, a bit of background: In my column on NOLA.com, I observed that Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal appear to be using public funds to support their respective political campaigns. I wrote:
[I]t’s ironic that Vitter takes veiled shots at Jindal for neglecting his gubernatorial duties when Vitter himself is playing hooky from the U.S. Senate. From April to June, Vitter missed 22.4 percent of all the Senate’s roll call votes.
Just as worrisome is Vitter’s blatant political use of his Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. According to an investigation by Bloomberg Politics, Vitter has been “holding public events about the issues at the core of his campaign … on the public dime.” In other words, Vitter presides over so-called committee “field hearings.” This year alone, he’s held 12 such “hearings” in Louisiana. To put this in perspective, Bloomberg reported that of the 26 field hearings held by the entire Senate this year, Vitter has presided over almost half of them.
Senate rules prohibit using field hearings as campaign events, but that’s a difficult rule to enforce (they are forbidden within 60 days of a members’ election). The hearings cost public money, however, including committee staff travel expenses. Using them for political purposes is not only wasteful; it’s unethical.
Jindal’s campaign can afford to reimburse the taxpayers for the luxuries his security detail. And if Vitter needs information from witnesses on topics related to his committees, he can get it from the same “witnesses” without bilking the federal treasury.
To that, Vitter’s campaign spokesperson, Luke Bolar, responded with an email on Tuesday. “I read your story where you talk about Sen. Vitter’s Small Business Committee hearings and town hall meetings and claim they are political, and I’m just wondering if you’ll be writing that same column about Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne,” Bolar wrote. “Below is a list of some of his ‘tourism town hall meetings.’”
(For the record: I never mentioned Vitter’s town hall meetings in my column. Perhaps that’s worth investigating, too.)
Bolar then provided me the following list of meetings held by Dardenne during the week of May 3.
Asked about Dardenne’s tourism meetings, Dardenne spokesperson Marsanne Golsby correctly noted that Dardenne’s campaign never raised the issue of Vitter’s field hearings. “We’re not the ones criticizing Sen. Vitter for holding those hearings,” Golsby said.
As for how Dardenne’s meetings are different from Vitter’s, Golsby was careful not to draw a distinction, reminding me again that Dardenne’s campaign has not criticized Vitter’s field hearings or town hall meetings.
When I ask if Dardenne’s tourism events are official or political, Golsby said, “Jay has a fulltime job as lieutenant governor and he’s doing it. Some things are lieutenant governor functions and some are campaign functions and we try to keep them separate.”
Golsby said Dardenne has not charged Vitter with misusing public funds to hold field hearings. “Jay has no problem with the job Sen. Vitter is doing,” she said. “He think he’s a good senator and should stay in the Senate.”
Also, in Dardenne’s defense, these events were part of National Tourism Awareness Week, which is very much part of the lieutenant governor’s purview. It appears the Vitter campaign cherry-picked one week when Dardenne was holding a series of official tourism events, something Dardenne does each year.
Bolar, not surprisingly, took exception to my characterization of his candidate’s use of Senate field hearings.
“The Senator also holds a town hall meeting in conjunction with those Small Business Committee hearings taking questions from constituents related to the topic of the hearing, but also any other topics,” Bolar wrote. “You may be the only person I know who thinks an elected representative providing constituent services and having an open in-person dialogue with the people he represents; or holding field hearings on important issues like infrastructure, taxes and health care [is] ‘an egregious waste of public funds.’
“Sen. Vitter has been holding town hall meetings and field hearings throughout his time in the Senate,” Bolar added. “Since being in the Senate he’s held a town hall meeting for constituents in every parish every Congress.”
Methinks Bolar doth protest too much.
First, I never mentioned Vitter’s many town hall meetings in my column, nor did I portray Vitter’s constituent services or other meetings with citizens as improper or purely political. I find it odd – and, perhaps, telling – that Bolar projected such a characterization to Vitter’s other activities.
He made that connection, not me.
My larger point, however, still holds and perhaps it now applies to Dardenne, as well (and, for all, I know Rep. John Bel Edwards and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle).
It is this: The voters expect public officials to refrain from using overtly taxpayer-funded events to promote their political campaigns.
I’m not naïve. I know that elected officials are always thinking about politics and how their actions will influence their re-election chances or their prospects for another office.
That said, there’s a fine line between being a good politician who does his or her job effectively and a politician who is aggressively using the resources of his or her office for blatantly political purposes.
In Vitter’s case, the fact that he, alone, is responsible for almost half of the entire U.S. Senate’s field hearings is enough to raise a serious red flag. Last year, maybe no one would have questioned their propriety. Barely within six months before the election, however, the level of scrutiny changes. Everything Dardenne, Vitter, Edwards and Angelle do in the coming months will correctly be viewed through a purely political lens.
I’ll stick to the basic message of my column and apply it to all the candidates for governor (which I also applied to Gov. Bobby Jindal): Don’t force the taxpayers for underwrite your political campaigns. If you want to hold an event less than four months before the election, it’s inevitably going to be viewed as a campaign event, no matter who pays for it.
So, pay for it from your (campaign) account, not ours.