Where did the Audubon Nature Institute get the money it spent trying to get New Orleans voters to approve a property tax increase on Saturday? How did Audubon spend its money? Who worked for the campaign?
Voters won’t know the answers to these questions until April 24, when Audubon files its first campaign finance report for the ballot proposition with the Louisiana Ethics Administration. That date is 40 days after the March 15 election.
Lawyers for the Audubon Nature Institute say Audubon isn’t required to file anything before then because it actually didn’t collect or spend money before Feb. 24. Had Audubon spent or collected money before then, it would have had to file a report by March 5.
The Audubon Nature Institute did conduct some activities before then, which included creating a website called VoteYesForAudubon.com, but its lawyers said that was part of a “branding campaign,” not an effort to influence the election.
C.B. Forgotston, a Hammond-based attorney who follows campaign finance, said Audubon’s approach renders meaningless laws requiring candidates and advocates to disclose how they raise and spend their money.
The law, Forgotston said, “is meant to allow voters to know who is underwriting a campaign before the election. Audubon is showing that it seems awfully easy to circumvent the law. The Legislature ought to fix the law.”
The tax would have gone to the Audubon Commission, whose board is appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. The commission contracts with the Audubon Nature Institute, a nonprofit organization, to manage its operations.
Frank Donze, communications director for the Audubon Nature Institute, said Monday that the institute budgeted $225,000 for the campaign. He said in an email that he didn’t know exactly how much was spent because “not all the bills are in.” He also said Audubon used existing funds rather than seeking donations, and it didn’t use taxpayer dollars.
Only one-third of New Orleans voters favored the ballot proposition, which would have raised property taxes — contingent on City Council approval of the maximum millage — for 50 years to finance new exhibits and renovations at Audubon’s acclaimed zoo, riverfront aquarium and seven other attractions.
Opponents said that Audubon didn’t specify how it would spend the money, Audubon Chief Executive Officer Ron Forman makes too much money — about $750,000 in salary and other compensation in 2011 and nearly $700,000 in 2012 — and that Audubon wanted the tax on the books for too long.
Audubon created the “Yes for Audubon” website, called voters with a recorded message from Archie Manning, blanketed homes with mailers and broadcast television ads promoting the tax.
A couple of weeks before the election, opponents began to organize a campaign against the tax — mainly through social media and emails.
A prime mover against Audubon was Keith Hardie, a New Orleans attorney who created Facebook pages called “Say No to Audubon Tax Hike“ and “Greenspace for NOLA, PAC.” Hardie said he thought Audubon was trying to sneak the tax increase by voters because it didn’t campaign in earnest until just before the election, which drew fewer people than the election six weeks before.
Hardie hired Baton Rouge attorney Jimmy Burland to register a political action committee – created three days before the election – and file two campaign finance reports with the Ethics Administration.
Campaign finance law generally requires anyone who seeks to influence an election to file a campaign finance report. The threshold for a political committee is $200; the threshold for anyone other than a political committee or candidate is $1,000.
Audubon, however, didn’t create a political action committee or file any campaign finance reports before the election.
Audubon hired attorney Gray Sexton to handle its campaign finance report questions. Based in Baton Rouge, Sexton formerly served as the staff attorney for the Ethics Administration.
In an interview, Sexton said Audubon wasn’t required to create a political action committee because it wasn’t formed to influence the election.
Sexton and his associate Alesia Ardoin said Audubon didn’t have to file a report before the latest reporting period, which began Feb. 24, as long as spending before that date was part of a “branding campaign” that did not specifically advocate the tax.
The VoteYesForAudubon.com site was registered on Nov. 25, records show.
Two YouTube videos posted on Feb. 17 extol Audubon’s virtues and include the tagline: “I’m asking! VoteYesforAudubon.com.” The videos don’t mention the proposed millage increase, but the website explains why voters should support it.
The post-Feb. 24 spending will be detailed on the report to be filed on April 24, Sexton and Ardoin said.
Bruce Gallassero, a campaign consultant who, like Hardie, was outraged by Audubon’s proposed tax, also spread the anti-message through Facebook.
In an interview Monday, Gallassero questioned whether Audubon complied with the law by not filing any financial reports before the election.
Gallassero said he visited WDSU-TV last week and saw records showing that Audubon signed a contract for advertising time on Feb. 24.*
Gallassero also checked online and learned that Audubon’s campaign website was live by Feb. 18. The nonprofit could have waited until after Feb. 24 to pay the person who created the website.
In both cases, the expenditures wouldn’t have to be reported until April 24.
*Correction: This story originally reported that Audubon purchased advertising on WDSU-TV on Feb. 14; the contract actually was signed Feb. 24. (March 19, 2014)