The primary in Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District has turned exceptionally nasty in the final days, with the top two Republicans airing harsh attack ads against each other that contain false and misleading claims.
Most notably, former state House Speaker Hunt Downer claims businessman Jeff Landry "scammed a small business out of $30,000" and then "lied to a bank to cover up his fraud." We find that charge to be misleading — telling only half of the story about a business dispute that was ultimately resolved in Landry’s favor.
Downer also calls Landry — who has never held public office — "a corrupt politician," without any evidence. He further claims Landry once "gave big money" to a Democratic congressman, when in fact the total amount was just $500.
For his part, Landry attempts to portray Downer (who switched parties nine years ago) as a "liberal Democrat." Landry’s ad accuses Downer of "voting yes on the gay agenda," but the evidence cited by the Landry campaign proves just the opposite. The ad also faults him for wasting money on a "legislative slush fund" that was actually a monthly expense allowance given to all state House representatives.
The 3rd District, which covers most of southeast Louisiana along the Gulf of Mexico, is now represented by Democrat Charlie Melancon, who is running for the U.S. Senate. The Cook Political Report rates the open seat race as "likely Republican" in the fall. The top two Republican candidates in the Aug. 28 primary are Landry, a businessman, and Downer, who served as a Democratic state lawmaker from 1975 until 2001, so one of them is likely to become the district’s next congressman.
Downer for Congress TV Ad: "Not the First Time"
Announcer: Jeff Landry, a corrupt politician running a dirty campaign. But it’s not the first time. Landry’s been called a mudslinging, dirty politician in his hometown newspaper. Landry scammed a small business out of 30,000 dollars. He even created fake stationary and lied to a bank to cover up his fraud. Landry claims he’s a Conservative Republican, but worked and campaigned for a Democrat and gave big money to a Democrat Congressman. Jeff Landry. He’ll lie about anything.
Business Deal Gone Bad
In an ad titled "Not the First Time," which first aired Aug. 21, Downer bemoans Landry’s negative ads and then falsely accuses him of committing fraud. The ad claims: "Landry scammed a small business out of 30,000 dollars. He even created fake stationary and lied to a bank to cover up his fraud." The charge stems from a legal dispute between Landry and Jones Brothers Co., a construction company that builds retail gas stations and is based in Bossier City, La. Landry had a business agreement with the company, although the nature of that agreement is unclear from court documents.
Here’s what happened, based on court documents provided by the Downer campaign: In March 2004, the Chitimacha Tribe accepted a $61,468 construction proposal from Jones Brothers and wrote a check for half that amount as a down payment. The suit says the tribe mistakenly sent a $30,734 check to Jones Brothers of Lafayette — not to the corporate headquarters in Bossier City. In an interview, Brent Littlefield, Landry’s political consultant, said Landry had an ownership stake in Jones Brothers of Lafayette.
In its court papers, Jones Brothers alleged that an employee named Wayne Champagne cashed the check two days after he was fired by the company. An attorney for the Chitimacha demanded the money back, and the bank attempted to return the check – but was stopped by Landry. On “homemade letterhead” indicating it was from “Jones Brothers of Lafayette,” Landry wrote to the bank and identified himself as “one of the partners of the payee” and indicated that he “consented to this endorsement” of “the check in dispute,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit acknowledged that there was a dispute over a business arrangement between Jones Brothers and Landry and Champagne, but it said: “[A]ny such arrangement would not involve the check in question.” It further alleged that Landry “is attempting to fraudulently represent himself as an owner of Jones Brothers Company.”
The judge who handled the case issued a judgment on Aug. 20, 2004, against Landry for the amount of the check, plus interest and $600 in attorney fees. Landry did not contest it.
But that’s only half the story. Littlefield said Landry was advised by his lawyer not to contest that judgment and instead file a counter suit, which he did. A final settlement was reached more than three years later in November 2007. On his campaign website, Landry provides documents that show Jones Brothers offered him and Wayne Champagne $150,000 to settle the counter suit. They were paid $105,000 after the value of the disputed check (plus interest and lawyer fees) was deducted.
So, clearly, Landry did not "scam" the company or commit fraud. If he did, he would have been hauled into criminal court, not civil court, and he would not have received more money from Jones Brothers.
Helping the Enemy
The ad also makes the curious claim that Landry "worked and campaigned for a Democrat and gave big money to a Democrat congressman." We say curious because of Downer’s long record as a Democrat. Certainly the same can be said of him.
In an e-mail, Downer spokesman Buddy Boe said Landry worked for a Democratic sheriff in St. Martin Parish. That’s true; Landry was a deputy sheriff. Boe also cited contributions that Landry gave to former Democratic congressman Chris John of Louisiana. All we could find were two $250 contributions on the same day in 2001 to John’s campaign from a Jeffrey Landry of St. Martinville, La. We don’t know if that’s the same Jeffrey Landry, but even if it is, $500 doesn’t qualify as "big money" to a member of Congress.
‘Liberal’ on Gay Rights?
Downer’s ad was in response to Landry’s attacks — including a TV ad that focuses on Downer’s years as a Democrat.
Landry for Congress TV Ad: "Seen This?"
Announcer: Seen this? Slick. It hides that Downer was a liberal Democrat politician for nearly three decades, voting for more than 750 million dollars in taxes for food, utilities, gas, and personal income. Voting yes on the gay agenda. Wasting taxpayer money on a legislative slush fund. Trying to defeat Bobby Jindal, then working as a lead lobbyist for Blanco, co-chaired Clinton’s pro-abortion energy tax campaign. Remember Hillarycare? Hunt Downer. A Liberal hiding in Conservative clothing.
Landry’s ad, which first aired Aug. 10, claims that a Downer TV ad "hides that Downer was a liberal Democratic politician for nearly three decades." It is true that Downer was a Democratic state lawmaker from 1975 to 2001. Downer headed Louisiana Democrats for Bush in 2000 and then switched parties at a White House ceremony shortly after Bush took office. But it’s a matter of opinion how liberal he was. John Maginnis, a journalist and author who writes about Louisiana politics, told us that Downer isn’t considered a liberal.
Digging into Downer’s record as a Democratic lawmaker, Landry points to specific votes that the ad says proves Downer is "a liberal hiding in conservative clothing." The ad criticizes Downer for "voting yes on the gay agenda." But that’s just wrong.
The ad refers to a 1997 hate crime bill that easily passed the House, 61-37, and was signed into law by a Republican governor, Mike Foster. The law provides for enhanced penalties if the victim was attacked because of "race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry or by reason of their actual or perceived membership or service in, or employment with" certain organizations, including conservative Christian groups.
Yes, the hate crime bill protects gays — but Downer opposed that provision. Then-Rep. Tony Perkins — a Republican who is now president of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. — offered an amendment to strike the words "sexual orientation" from the legislation. Downer, then the Democratic House speaker, voted for Perkins’ amendment, but it narrowly failed 47-48.
Downer also has been criticized on a conservative website called DemocratHuntDower.com for voting yes in 2001 on House bill 1517, which allowed unmarried couples in abusive relationships to obtain restraining orders. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune endorsed the legislation saying: “A woman who is being brutalized by a boyfriend isn’t in any less danger than one who is married to her abuser or sharing living quarters with him, and the law shouldn’t distinguish between them. If the state Legislature adopts House Bill 1517, it no longer will.” The bill passed 90-10, with four members absent. It also was signed into law by Foster.
Why is Downer criticized for it? The legislation is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. Perkins offered an amendment to include the phrase “of the opposite sex” to exclude same-sex couples. But the House voted to table the motion, effectively killing it. Downer, who at this point was a Republican and no longer the speaker, was absent from the vote to kill Perkins’ amendment.
During Downer’s run for governor in 2003, the Times-Picayune described his voting record as "conservative" — mentioning, among others, a vote on an amendment that would have excluded gay students from being protected against discrimination and harassment. That, too, was an amendment offered by Perkins. The paper wrote:
Times-Picayune, Sept. 21, 2003: Former state House Speaker Hunt Downer, a state representative from Houma, has been the least vocal Republican on social issues, but his voting record is conservative. For example, during the recent legislative session, Downer voted to amend a student discrimination and harassment bill to exclude protection for students based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2003. That same year he also voted to reduce state financing for condom distribution. Neither bill passed.
Liberal on Taxes and Spending?
The ad also claims that Downer wasted taxpayer money “on a legislative slush fund.” The claim refers to a $1,500-a-month expense allowance given to each state House member in addition to pay and other benefits.
The Landry campaign points to an article published in Baton Rouge’s The Advocate in 2000 to support its claim that the allowance was a "slush fund." In the article, the Senate president questioned the legality of the extra payments. But the same article quotes House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer saying the House was on "sound legal footing" because the allowance was adopted as a House rule in 1998.
Downer served as House speaker from 1996 to 2000, so Landry blames him for it. But he wasn’t solely responsible for the additional payments, which cover members’ newsletters to constituents, travel within their districts, and legislative offices.
The ad also claims that Downer voted for “more than $750 million in taxes for food, utilities, gas, and personal income.” This is true. In 1998, Downer supported the renewal of a 3-cent sales tax that had been extended to food, utilities and other traditionally exempt items. The extension of the sales tax, which brought in $342 million a year in additional tax revenue, had been levied a year or two at a time since 1986. The Advocate reported that Downer pushed to make the tax permanent:
Downer, April 26, 1998: Let’s make it permanent and stabilize our budget. We need to be realistic. We’re going on 13 or 14 years of these taxes. When you keep doing it for more than a decade, it’s pretty permanent.
Downer also is criticized for "trying to defeat Bobby Jindal." And why not? They were running against each other in the 2003 gubernatorial primary. Downer lost to Jindal, but supported him in the general election against then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. Blanco won.
Soon after the election, Blanco appointed Downer as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and later as her legislative director in the governor’s office. As legislative director, it would be his job to help advance Blanco’s legislative agenda — hence the claim that he was her "lead lobbyist." That’s an accurate description, and a fair criticism.
– by Eugene Kiely and Lara Seligman
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Louisiana House of Representatives. HB 1517, roll call Amendment B-278. 7 May 2001.
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