Court affirms ruling on Holden’s campaign spending

Mayor-President Kip Holden did not violate campaign spending laws in 2010 by giving money to a constituent for funeral costs, for students to travel abroad, and to sponsor a Metro Council member’s daughter at the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed state District Judge Kay Bates’ April 2012 ruling that Holden did not violate the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act.

“We are very pleased — although not surprised,” Gray Sexton, who represents the mayor in the case, said.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics had asked the appeals court to reverse Bates’ decision and send the case back to her for the assessment of “appropriate penalties” against the mayor. The board sued Holden in February 2012.

State law allows a candidate to expend excess campaign contributions “for any lawful purpose, but such funds shall not be used, loaned, or pledged by any person for any personal use unrelated to ... the holding of a public office,” the 1st Circuit noted.

“We conclude that the district court did not err in finding that the three expenditures at issue were not for the personal use of Mayor Holden and that the expenditures were, in the broadest sense, related to the holding of public office by Mayor Holden,” Circuit Judge Randolph Parro wrote for the panel.

Kathleen Allen, the state’s ethics administrator, said late Tuesday afternoon she had not reviewed the ruling. No decision has been made whether to take the matter to the state Supreme Court, she said.

The Ethics Board accused Holden of violating campaign spending laws by donating $500 for funeral expenses for murder victim Brittni Boatner, $500 for a program — People to People Ambassadors Program — for students traveling abroad, and $197 to sponsor Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker’s daughter, Tya Wicker, at the Congressional Youth Leadership Council.

Holden has said previously that he made the expenditures “with a conscience that’s free and clear.’’

Bates ruled that Holden did not violate state law in part because he “derived no personal benefit or added publicity” from the donations challenged by the Ethics Board.

“For more than two decades, the Ethics Board has acknowledged that an elected official can make reasonable expenditures for funerals, weddings, graduations and other civic and educational activities that foster support and recognition of the notable actions of the official’s constituency,” Sexton noted.

“The Ethics Board departed from this established protocol by singling out Mayor Holden to question, for the first time, expenditures that had always been deemed acceptable in the past,” he added.

Ethics Board attorneys had argued to the 1st Circuit that the mayor’s expenditures were for personal reasons, not for reasons related to the holding of public office.

Circuit Judge William Crain and retired Judge William Kline Jr. joined Parro. Kline said the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act “would better serve candidates, office holders, and the Louisiana Board of Ethics if it included more exact standards.”

Holden was fined $2,500 in 2011, the maximum allowed under state law, for his campaign’s failure to properly account for campaign funds used to cover travel expenses in 2009. The travel expenses included trips to China that Holden has said were to promote economic development for Baton Rouge.