The Subway candidate: Fleming’s business practices toe political line

If Louisiana Republican John Fleming wins a seat in Congress in two weeks, much of the thanks will go to his Subway restaurant business.

The intermingling of Fleming’s business and political interests continues to raise questions among his opponents, but Fleming maintains everything has been above-board and approved by a compliance expert.

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Fleming, who is also a renowned physician, is in a tight race with Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche (D) in the state’s 4th district House race. The race was delayed a month due to Hurricane Gustav and will conclude Dec. 6.

The latest Subway-related incident came this week when two former employees of Fleming’s Subways complained to The Hill that his workers were required to stuff the restaurant’s sandwich bags with literature for Fleming’s campaign.

Fleming explained Monday that his Subways often stuff the bags with advertisements, and that his campaign has paid his corporation for the advertising — which includes ads outside the stores.

Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports appear to confirm the arrangement, showing about $25,000 paid to Fleming’s Subway corporation for advertising purposes.

FEC advisory opinions in recent years do not appear to address such a relationship. But the FEC has ruled that candidates can pay rent to companies they own, as long as they pay fair market value.

So as long as Fleming paid the going rate for the advertising, the arrangement doesn’t appear to violate campaign finance law.

Regardless, it’s the latest example of Fleming using his business to enrich his campaign.

The money he has made from the business has allowed him to self-fund at least $775,000 for his campaign so far — a figure that makes up more than 75 percent of his total funds raised — and earlier this year he raised his name recognition with corporate advertising and distributed free food from the Subways during Gustav.

Also, in his campaign ads, Fleming features a clip of himself in one of his Subways. When opponents began raising questions about the ad, his campaign pulled it, said Fleming’s compliance expert, Paul Kilgore.

“The decision was made to avoid any air of impropriety, so they pulled that part of it,” Kilgore said, adding that the campaign was trying to “err on the side of caution.”

Democrats maintained that the inclusion of the Subway clip constituted a corporate contribution, but Fleming and Kilgore said it is compliant as long as he doesn’t insinuate some kind of endorsement from the company.

Kilgore said Fleming’s campaign has “gone to great lengths to keep the business world and the campaign world separate.”

{mospagebreak}But not all of Fleming’s Subway employees feel that way.

Fleming owns a series of Subways in the Shreveport-based district, and two recent employees said some workers were uncomfortable stuffing bags with his campaign fliers.

Michelle Johns and Carly Self, who both worked at Fleming’s downtown Subway location, said employees were unhappy but they were told it was part of their job.

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Johns, who said she is a Carmouche supporter, noted that most of the employees were Democrats.

Fleming said the workers were not forced to do anything out of the ordinary.

“No employee has ever been asked or required in any way to campaign, but the company is doing the advertising on behalf of the campaign, as part of the sandwich procedure to put a campaign flier into the bag,” he said.

Fleming acknowledged that he was, in effect, paying his corporation out of his campaign, but said that it was “completely permissible.”

“That is the relationship between the two entities, and that’s no different than my campaign paying KTBS to run an ad on TV,” he said.

Subway’s press office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The winner of the congressional race will succeed retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.).

An internal Fleming poll last week showed Fleming with a small lead, within the margin of error, while Carmouche’s polling had him ahead by 11 points.

The district leans Republican but has been a top target since McCrery’s retirement. Democrats will be looking for revenge after Republicans retook the seat of Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.), just more than six months after he took it for Democrats in a special election.