Monday, September 23, 2013

JP Councilman Ben Zahn Eating His Way Through Campaign Account

They say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That old adage doesn’t apply to elected officials, particularly Jefferson Parish District 4 Councilman Ben Zahn.

Zahn routinely raids his campaign account to pay for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as gifts, plants, flowers and gift cards for constituents. 

In the past, Zahn has spent thousands of dollars from his campaign account for parade expenses including purchasing Saints shirts for his family to wear in a parade.

Of course, none of these expenses come out Zahn’s pocket. They are all charged to his campaign account with money provided by parish contractors and others. And, if Zahn’s account ever runs low, he just needs to have another fundraiser to add more money to his personal piggybank.

According to campaign finance reports, from September 12 – December 18, 2012, Zahn had 31 entries for food or beverages charged to his campaign account. All had notations like “Lunch Meeting”, “Breakfast Meeting”, or “Lunch with Constituents”, and that's all it takes. A simple note with nothing more specific required. It's completely on the "Honor System" and, since many elected officials don't know the meaning of the word "Honor", you see the dilemma.

For all the State Ethics Board knows, Zahn could have eaten many of these meals with his family and the gifts and gift cards could have been given to his family and friends. Conceivably, Zahn could be using political campaign contributions to enhance his personal lifestyle and supplement his salary as a Parish Councilman.

From the reports, it appears that Zahn prefers the cuisine of New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Company (8 visits), La Madeleine (4 visits), Panera Bread (3 visits), Applebee’s and Lee’s Hamburgers (2 visits each). I guess we should be thankful that Zahn's tastes favor hamburgers instead of Filets from Ruth's Chris.

On one occasion, Zahn expensed $1.99 at La Madeleine for “Water with Constituent”. You read that right: as a Parish Councilman, Zahn, who earns over $60,000 from taxpayers, couldn’t spare 2 bucks from his own pocket to purchase a bottle of water.

In addition to eating, Zahn also raided the campaign piggybank for $250 in WalMart Gift Cards on 12/19, $50 for a last minute Walgreen’s Gift Card purchased on Christmas Day. I wonder what lucky Zahn family members might have received these in their Christmas Stockings? 

Zahn also spent $93.19 in “Christmas Catering” on Christmas Eve from Messina’s Catering (That's ok Honey, don't worry about cooking Christmas Eve Dinner - I'll just charge it to my campaign account), as well as hundreds of dollars in plants from Home Depot, all from his campaign account.

Here’s a rundown of Zahn’s dining expenses that were charged to his campaign account:

9/12       Café Du Monde                                  $4.61                     Meeting
                NO Hamburger                                 $24.53                   Lunch Meeting
9/17       Starbucks                                           $6.53                     Breakfast Meeting
9/21       Casa Garcia                                       $108.25                 Dinner Meeting
9/25       Chateau Café                                     $18.06                   Breakfast Meeting
9/26       NO Hamburger                                   $52.77                   Lunch Meeting
10/3       La Madeleine                                     $39.19                   Lunch with Constituent
10/8       Panera Bread                                     $16.91                   Jefferson Chamber Meeting
10/12     Lee’s Hamburgers                              $16.37                   Field Day Meeting
                Laketown Harbor                              $25.83                   Dinner with Constituent
10/13     Lee’s Hamburgers                              $17.99                   Lunch Meeting
10/15     Seymour’s Restaurant                        $15.72                   Lunch Meeting
10/17     McDonald’s                                         $3.61                     Breakfast Meeting
10/21     Applebee’s                                         $42.70                   Lunch Meeting
10/22     Panera Bread                                    $22.78                   Lunch Meeting
10/23     NO Hamburger                                  $21.49                   Lunch with Constituent
10/25     Cheateau Café                                  $6.69                     Coffee with Constituent
10/26     Don’s Seafood Hut                            $83.59                   Lunch with Constituent
10/29     La Madeleine                                    $15.38                   Lunch with Constituent
10/30     Panera Bread                                   $13.22                   Lunch with Constituent

11/5       PJ’s Coffee                                        $4.95                  Breakfast with Constituent
                KPBA                                              $60.00                   Luncheon
                NO Hamburger                                $18.89                   Lunch with Constituent
11/7       La Madeleine                                    $20.51                   Lunch with Constituent
11/11     Applebee’s                                        $21.75                   Lunch with Constituent
11/12     NO Hamburger                                 $21.49                   Lunch with Constituent
11/14     PJ’s Coffee                                       $8.11                     Coffee with Constituent
                La Madeleine                                 $1.99                     Water with Constituent

12/13     NO Hamburger                                 $16.62                   Lunch with Constituent
12/17     NO Hamburger                                 $21.82                   Lunch with Constituent
12/18     NO Hamburger                                 $50.47                   Lunch Meeting

According to the State Ethics Board, even though the time period listed above did not coincide with any campaigning, the expenses claimed by Zahn are valid under Louisiana law. There’s nothing illegal about taking money from parish contractors and using that money to eat, drink, buy Christmas presents and other gifts, and provide your family’s Christmas Eve dinner.

Zahn's abuse of the spirit and intent of campaign finance laws shows his true arrogance for the process. Unfortunately, Zahn is not the only elected official who uses their campaign accounts to enhance their lifestyles.

And, that is exactly what one of the major flaws with the campaign finance system – because Zahn's actions should be illegal or, at least, unethical. Campaign funds should be spent on campaigning and campaign related expenses, not Gift Cards, meals, Mardi Gras beads and Saints clothing for your family. Where and when is this going to end?

Shouldn’t the State Ethics Board actually be interested in ethics?