Ethics complaint against Vitter donor becomes Dem fodder in Senate race

An ethics watchdog group is preparing to file a complaint against a major donor to Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) campaign.

And Democrats are trying to use the filing to their advantage. The party has tried to make the race a referendum on Vitter’s character, with almost every attack tied back to the first-term senator’s self-admitted “serious sin” — his connection to a Washington prostitution ring.

But the complaint focuses on the Vitter donor, not the senator. 

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) plans to file the complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this week in light of a recent report that employees at a California-based dry cleaning company were reimbursed for their donations to Vitter’s Senate campaign last summer.

“It’s a clear violation of campaign finance law,” said Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director.

Earlier this month the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Jamal Ogbe, a former executive with the U.S. Dry Cleaning Corp., said he was reimbursed by the company for his $4,800 contribution to Vitter’s campaign. The company’s employees and their families gave Vitter a total of $33,000 in the hope that he would help them receive federal stimulus money or other government assistance.

The company, which has since filed for bankruptcy, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sloan stresses the case involving Vitter centers on the contributor, not the Louisiana Republican. “It’s really a complaint more against the dry cleaner,” she said. “The question is whether Vitter knew [what was happening].

“It’s never good to be involved in an illegal contribution scheme,” she added.

The FEC complaint will likely take several months, if not years, to resolve. “Will anything happen before the election? No,” Sloan said.

That means the case will likely provide little ammunition for Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who faces an uphill struggle in his bid to unseat Vitter. Melancon has about half of Vitter’s $5 million in cash on hand, and a recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed him trailing the incumbent 36 percent to 52.

And it may be difficult for Democrats to tie the fundraising to Vitter’s admission he used a D.C.-based escort service.

“Campaign ethics, that’s different than morality — that’s just raising money,” said John Maginnis, editor of the nonpartisan LaPolitics newsletter.

A Vitter spokesman wouldn’t say what the campaign planned to do with the dry cleaning executives’ donations.

“Sen. Vitter believes that if the company violated campaign finance laws, they should be prosecuted,” Vitter campaign spokesman Luke Bolar said in a statement.

The Louisiana Democratic Party is calling on Vitter to return the “tainted” contributions.

“We hope that David Vitter will do the right thing and return these thousands of dollars in tainted campaign contributions, but we plan to ensure that David Vitter has to play by the same rules as the rest of us,” party spokesman Kevin Franck said in a statement.

Louisiana political observers don’t expect the allegations will hurt Vitter’s reelection chances.

Voters “know these guys are reaching out around the country raising money,” said Maginnis. “You come up with a few black sheep, that’s just the way it’s done.”

Vitter’s campaign is not the only one to receive donations from U.S. Dry Cleaning Corp.

Company CEO Robert Lee and other executives also donated to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and his leadership political action committee around the same time they gave to Vitter, according to the FEC. And in 2006, Lee donated to Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).

Other Louisiana politicians have been embroiled in fundraising scandals before.

In January 2008, CREW filed a complaint with the Department of Justice asking for an investigation into whether Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) violated federal bribery law by including a $2 million earmark for an education firm called Voyager Expanded Learning in a bill less than a week after receiving $30,000 in campaign contributions from the company’s executives and their families.

CREW also asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate. Sloan said the Ethics Committee never acted on its complaint and the Justice Department indicated the alleged quid pro quo was too dated to investigate. Landrieu's received a letter from the Ethics Committee stating the complaint was "dismissed" after it was "evaluated." CREW’s FEC complaint against Landrieu is still pending. The Democrat was reelected to a third term the same year CREW started asking for an inquiry.

In cases of “conduit contributions,” the FEC has punishments that range from a letter of caution to a hefty civil penalty, according to officials. There could also be a criminal violation, depending on the commission’s findings.

“There’s always the possibility of jail time for something like this,” Sloan said.

But that’s rare in cases of conduit contributions. In 2008, Los Angeles attorney Pierce O’Donnell was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly funneling $26,000 in contributions through his employees to then-Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) presidential campaign in 2004. He was subsequently cleared on all counts. Edwards was never charged.



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