- Associated Press - Friday, May 9, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Louisiana legislators have kept thousands of taxpayer dollars that should have gone to reimburse expenses paid by their campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign and legislative records by NOLA.com ‘ The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 News.

They billed their campaigns and the Legislature for office equipment, hotels in Washington D.C., Panama City, in Panama, and other locations, cell phone use and more. The House and Senate reimbursed the expenses, but the lawmakers’ campaign reports included no evidence that they repaid their campaigns.

The largest example of double dipping in the news organization’s latest review was $3,189 that the Senate reimbursed to Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, for travel, hotel and other expenses he first billed to his campaign for a 2012 trade mission to Panama, records show. Gallot, in a statement, said he used the Senate money after the trip to reimburse the campaign. But campaign filings with the state Ethics Board showed no evidence of the repayment. Gallot didn’t respond to a request for documentation of the reimbursement.

The news organizations previously exposed how Sen. President John Alario and Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb kept thousands in taxpayers dollars after double billing their campaigns and the Senate. Further review found six more legislators who failed to repay their campaigns for expenses after being reimbursed with taxpayer dollars.

Four lawmakers in that group said they would reimburse the Legislature, after reporters in recent weeks asked about their double dipping. Among them was Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie. Lopinto billed his campaign and the House for a stay at the Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., during a May 2010 conference, and was paid $542 by the House. He said he would repay that amount to the House.

The other lawmakers who double billed expenses included Sens. Bret Allain, R-Frankin, and Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, and Reps. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, and Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport.

UNO political science professor Ed Chervenak said the growing number of lawmakers involved in the practice “is evidence of a systemic culture of double dipping” in the Legislature.

Legislators can seek reimbursements to cover some costs associated with the exercise of their offices, including travel, office expenses, and telephone bills. But when they are reimbursed for expenses that their campaigns paid for, the lawmakers are supposed to pass the reimbursement along to the campaign.

The lawmakers involved in double dipping included:

- Dixon, who double billed for hotel stays in Chicago, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I., totaling $2,237. He also double billed $67 in parking expenses. Records show he kept that money. Dixon, in a statement, said: “Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I have personally reimbursed the House of Representatives $2,304.29 to clear up this matter.” His statement included a copy of a personal check written for that amount.

- Ward, who double billed $2,081 for office furniture, $548 for postage and $137 for cell phone use. The Senate reimbursed him, but his campaign records didn’t show that he passed the money to the campaign. Late Thursday night, after the publication of this story online, he sent a statement that called the double billing “accounting mistakes.” He also wrote: “I am not clear exactly as to what took place to cause the inaccuracies but I will be sure they are corrected and that any reimbursement that is due to the state or my campaign account is paid immediately.”

- Allain, who had 10 instances of double billing, including cell phone and other communication expenses totaling $1,008, and $579 for purchases at Office Depot, among other expenses. “Thank you for calling this situation to my attention,” he said in a statement. He said the double billing took place in the first weeks after he took office, when he was shutting down its campaign office and opening his district office. He said “the error has been corrected by repayment to the Senate.”

- Williams, who double billed $838 for a stay at a Hilton hotel in Washington D.C. After receiving questions from reporters, he left a message that indicated he wasn’t sure what reporters were seeking. Then he didn’t respond to two email messages detailing the double dipping and asking for comment.

- Gallot, who said the trade mission to Panama was “an appropriate travel” expense related to his position as vice chairman of the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs Committee. “It was acceptable to use campaign funds for this expense with the campaign fund being reimbursed following the trip,” his statement said. But his campaign reports showed no evidence of repayment. Reporters sent an email message to Gallot attaching his campaign finance report and asking him to point out the reimbursement to the campaign. He didn’t respond to that message.

- Lopinto, who in a statement said of his double billing the Hilton hotel stay: “This payment was direct deposited to my personal account and I must have not noticed. I did not reimburse the campaign for this reimbursement. It obviously was an error on my part, I will take care of it immediately.”

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