Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.
- Dick Armey
In September, we looked at Jefferson Parish Councilman Ben Zahn’s use (and, in my opinon, abuse) of campaign contributions to enhance his personal standard of living.
Zahn spent thousands of dollars from his campaign account on meals at area restaurants, gifts and gift cards, all allegedly with or for “constituents”. Of course, Councilman Zahn never responded with the name of the “constituent” that he purchased a gift card for on Christmas Day (nothing like last minute shopping) or the names of any of the “constituents” that he dined with or purchased gifts for.
Friday, I wrote about the fact that Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni,with the blessing of the Kenner City Council, gave out over $600,000 in no-bid professional services contracts to two companies that had given him the maximum contribution allowed by law, and had donated to each of the 7 Kenner City Councilmembers.
Today, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ways that Yenni is spending those campaign contributions.
Yenni has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies that seek to do business with the City of Kenner. These contributions buy the contributors a seat at the table when Yenni is carving up the Holiday Pork that is the way contracts are given in the Kenner.
These contributors give Yenni money and, since Louisiana’s rules are so loose, he can pretty much spend that money on anything that he can justify as a campaign expense.
And, when it comes to politicians, they can justify pretty much anything.
Remember how Zahn spent $3.61 on a “Breakfast Meeting” at McDonalds and $1.99 on “Water with constituent” at La Madeleine?
Yenni’s spending and expenses are even more egregious.
Parades/Mardi Gras Krewes
When you consider that Kenner doesn’t have a Mardi Gras Parade and, for that matter, the only thing resembling a parade in Kenner is the Driftwood Neighborhood Parade, it might be surprising for Kenner’s residents to learn that their Mayor has spent tens of thousands of dollars from his campaign account on Mardi Gras Krewes, beads and parade throws.
In February of 2012, Nola.com published an article about Yenni's parade expenses and questionable donations.
In 2010, Yenni spent $9,000 from his campaign account on “Dues, Dubloons, Cups, Beads” and other expenses related to the Krewe of Excalibur. He spent another $13,200 in 2011 with Excalibur and expenses associated with Excalibur, and another $8,400 in 2012.
Yenni has also spent thousands on the Endymion Parade, founded by his mentor, former Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz.
Yenni’s campaign account also spent almost $576.38 in 2011 providing flowers to Excalibur from, you guessed it, Zahn’s Florals.
In addition, Yenni has spent tens of thousands more on St. Patrick’s Day Parades and the Irish-Italian Parade.
In 2013, Yenni spent $1,100 for beads for the Driftwood Parade.
From 2011-2013, Yenni spent $30,697.58 on beads, throws and gifts at Beads by the Dozen. For its part, Beads by the Dozen has somewhat reciprocated and contributed a few thousand back to Mayor Yenni. Beads by the Dozen is owned by Dan Kelly. You may remember Kelly’s name as a Director of Kenner City Events, Inc. which promoted the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfasts and was involved in the Laketown Fest.
Yenni has also spent thousands more from his campaign account at New Orleans Promotions, down the street on Edwards Avenue in Harahan from Beads by the Dozen and owned by Kelly's wife.
All told, Mayor Yenni has spent almost $50,000 on parades, Krewes, beads, gifts and other expenses.
It’s not just parades that bring out the campaign spending in Yenni – he also loves frames, particularly from The Frame Shoppe.
Since his inauguration, Yenni has spent $16,198.73 in “Framing” with The Frame Shoppe. Included in that figure is $1,142.82 for “Holiday Gifts”.
I wonder who the lucky folks were who woke up on Christmas Morning to find framed photos of Mayor Yenni under their Christmas Trees.
On a positive note, at least The Frame Shoppe is located in Kenner.
Chateau Golf & Country Club
In addition to moving his annual Prayer Breakfast and other events, and,possibly, exuding direct or indirect influence on other people to move their events, Yenni has spent almost $11,000 in campaign contributions for “Food & Beverage”, donations and other expenses at the Chateau Golf & Country Club.
Mayor Yenni said that he moved the Prayer Breakfasts from the Pontchartrain Center to Chateau to save money and generate more income for the Kenner Food Bank. Since the City of Kenner is allotted several rent free days at the city-owned Pontchartrain Center, it is hard to believe that holding the Prayer Breakfast at Chateau would cost less than ZERO and, we’ve already shown that the Prayer Breakfasts have earned little, if any money for the FoodBank.
In addition to the direct payments, Chateau receives thousands more in free advertising from their hosting of these events.
We’ll also never know how many City of Kenner Contractors moved their Christmas Parties and other events to Chateau in part to curry favor with Mayor Yenni.
The Chateau Golf & Country Club is owned by Yenni’s father-in-law and managed by the Mayor’s wife.
For its part, the Swanner family, Yenni’s in-laws, have contributed $24,500 to Mayor Yenni’s campaign so, I guess, as long as Mayor Yenni is getting his cut, he’s happy.
Wining & Dining
Not limiting himself to food & drink at Chateau, Mayor Yenni’s campaign account has spent $7,509.50 at area restaurants, almost exclusively at restaurants that aren’t in Kenner.
Included in that amount is a $1,461 bill from Antoine’s, another $1,003.24 at Antoine’s, as well as several other nights out on the town at Galley Seafood ($430.56, $258.03, $249.00, $200.00, $195.82, $160.61, and $125.00); Mr. John’s Steakhouse ($410.00, $371.00, and $219.00); Gordon Biersch ($308.30, $269.69); The Italian Barrel ($322); Chophouse ($322); Gallagher’s Grill ($160); Austin’s ($154); Shogun ($143); and other restaurants, all paid for by Yenni’s campaign account.
Also included is a $2.99 expense from Starbucks.
I guess Mayor Yenni didn’t want a pastry that day.
Gifts – You Want Gifts?
Every holiday it seems, Mayor Yenni raids his campaign account for money to spend on gifts.
In February of 2011, Yenni’s campaign account charged $1,468.13 on “Holiday Gifts” at Raymond’s Jewelry Creations; $146.81 at Adler’s and $96.19 at World Market. The cynic in me wants to say that someone had a little something extra in their Valentine’s Day haul that year courtesy of Mayor Yenni's campaign account.
Also in 2011, Yenni’s campaign spent $3,371.25 in “Holiday Gifts” at John’s Tuxedos. John’s is a favorite of Mayor Yenni’s campaign account and has also received campaign money for purchases by the Mayor of other events.
Mayor Yenni’s campaign account has also spent hundreds more on gifts for Secretary’s Day, Retirement, and other Holidays.
Donations? Contributions? We’ve Got Those Too
Mayor Yenni, through his campaign account of course and not his personal income, has given thousands of dollars to other elected officials and non-profit groups including his high school.
Yenni has given $2,000 each to Sheriff Newell Normand and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, although neither needs Yenni’s help when it comes to fundraising.
Yenni has also given over $6,000 to Jesuit High School and $2,600 to the Jesuit Church, all from his campaign account.
To be fair, these expenses are not illegal under Louisiana’s current system of campaign finance reporting.
But, they should be.
And, Mike Yenni and Ben Zahn are not alone. There are dozens of other elected officials who are also using their campaign accounts to finance what should be personal spending. In the coming weeks, we will be writing about some of them too.
This week, Fox 8 and Nola.com began to look at campaign contributions and their impact on influence.
It’s a great series and a great start.
However, until we can eliminate the buying and selling of our elected officials by campaign contributors, we should demand that the State Ethics Board impose more limits on their use of the money that they collect and not allow candidates or elected officials to use campaign money to enhance their personal lifestyles, their reputations through donations and their power base by allowing contributions to other candidates and elected officials.
Since Mayor Yenni has never held a private sector job or owned a business, the money that he is paid as the Mayor of Kenner is the largest amount of money that he has ever been paid in his life. By tapping into his campaign account for extravagant meals and gifts, Mardi Gras dues, parade expenses, and donations that he would have been otherwise not able to afford, the campaign contributors that are buying influence with Yenni are funding his lifestyle. Of course, they don’t care where the money goes or what Yenni spends it on.
But, we should.
And, the State Ethics Board should too.
If you would like to tell the State Ethics Board that “Enough is enough” and you want real campaign finance reform, their telephone number is 1-800-842-6630. You can also go to the State Ethics Board’s web site and click on the Contact Us tab to send them an email message.
We will only get change if we demand change. The elected officials love the system now. Wouldn’t you love to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in other people’s money for your meals, Christmas gifts and other expenses?
Who wouldn’t like to act like a Big Shot and pick up a $1,400 check at a restaurant?
I know Mike Yenni does.