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Of large campaign contributions:
“It's a form of legalized bribery.”

--Robert Mann
LSU Professor of Journalism

Disciplined with a Feather

Special Justice for Arlen "Benny" Cenac
In 2008, when Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Senator David Vitter (R-La.) were running for reelection, federal campaign laws limited individual contributions to $2,300 per election cycle.  To support their senatorial races, Arlen "Benny" Cenac, the head of Cenac Towing Co. of Houma, Louisiana, attempted to contribute $23,000 to Landieu's campaign and $15,000 to Vitter's campaign by subdividing each contribution into six separate checks in the names of individuals associated with his various companies.

Cenac's "bundling" scheme unraveled when Landrieu's reelection committee became suspicious of the six donations and referred them to the Federal Election Commission.  The crime was a federal offense for which Cenac faced a maximum term of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised probation following his release.  Nevertheless, after pleading guilty, Cenac was sentenced on September 5, 2013 by Judge Carl J. Barbier of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to pay a mere $5,000 fine, a $100 "special assessment" and serve a one-year term of probation.

Included among Cenac's close personal friends are Judge Stanwood Richardson Duval, Jr., of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and Judge Duval's brother, Claude Berwick Duval II, head of the Houma law firm of Duval, Funderburk, Sundbery, Lovell & Watkins.  At the start of the 2008 campaign season, Berwick Duval was approached by Landrieu's campaign committee for contributions, and he turned to his wealthy friend for help with the request.  Both Judge Stanwood Duval and his son David were previously associated with Berwick Duval's law firm while Berwick Duval's son, Stanwood Robert "Stan" Duval, remains a member.  All parties are involved with claims against BP in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case presently in Judge Barbier's court.


FEC: Cenac lied about contributions
May 28, 2013

It started with a complaint against a senatorial campaign's handling of contributions, brought by a Washington, D.C. watchdog group.

It will end with adjudication of a federal criminal charge brought against the scion of a Houma marine towing company.

Arlen "Benny" Cenac will enter a plea at an as-yet-undetermined date before a federal magistrate when he answers an allegation that he lied to the Federal Election Commission about contributions he made to the campaigns of Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., in the names of relatives and associates authorities say had no knowledge of the ruse.

Federal election laws limit the amount of money an individual or a company may contribute to a candidate. The underlying allegation is that Cenac had attempted to give more money than is legally allowed to Landrieu and Vitter by making it appear the money had come from other people.

If convicted, Cenac faces a maximum term of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised probation following his release.

U.S. Attorney Dana Boente filed a 1-count bill of information against Cenac, alleging "between Feb. 16, 2008, and May 24, 2008, Cenac, who is the president and owner of Cenac Towing, submitted cashier's checks that he purchased in the names of individuals other than himself to the campaigns of two United States Senate candidates."

The bill of information is an accusation, similar to a grand jury indictment, but brought only by a prosecutor.

"The money Cenac used to purchase these cashier's checks came from personal and corporate accounts," a statement from Boente's office reads. "In submitting these contributions to the campaigns, Cenac neither obtained nor sought the knowledge, permission or authority of the individuals he listed as remitters on the cashier's checks."

This, according to court papers, caused a knowing and willful "submission of a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement and representation, that is the submission by unwitting authorized campaign committees of candidates for the United States Senate to the Federal Election Commission of a report that was materially false in reporting the source and amount of contributions to the campaigns."

Cenac Responds

Cenac's Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Kwame J. Manley, said since July 2011, his client "voluntarily resolved all issues with the FEC and paid a civil fine in connection with the case."

"The bill of information filled yesterday is part of Mr. Cenac's agreement with the Department of Justice to resolve the remaining aspects of this matter," Manley said. "Mr. Cenac has learned from this experience and looks forward to implementing enhanced procedures to ensure full compliance with election laws in the future."

The $170,000 fine Cenac paid the FEC, according to its officials, is a whopping record.

But the FEC matters were civil in nature, arising from a complaint by Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which monitors campaign contributions and practices.

In 2009, Sloan and other people affiliated with her group noticed something unusual while poring through campaign finance reports.

A large sum of money had been given from Landrieu's campaign to the U.S. Treasury. And there was no explanation.

"Suddenly giving up $25,000 in contributions was suspicious," Sloan explained. "When somebody gives back money, they usually explain. And they usually give money back to the donor. It is only when a campaign believes it is something illegal that they give it to the treasury. (Landrieu) didn't explain that so we wondered what was going on."

Devil in the Details

After Sloan filed a complaint with the FEC, on Nov. 20, 2009, an investigation commenced.

The Landrieu campaign responded to the complaint in January 2010, stating that it had received "a series of six contributions payable by cashier's checks issued by Whitney National Bank in New Orleans. ... The contributions, which totaled $25,300 [one $2,300 check plus five $4,600 checks], were forwarded to the committee by a Louisiana attorney."

The Landrieu campaign made its own inquiry, which included calls and letters to the named contributors. When one was contacted and said he had not made such a contribution, the Landrieu campaign staff determined something was not right. But that resulted in another problem. Since they could not ascertain the identity of the real contributor, there was nothing left to do but turn over the money from the entire series of contributions to the Treasury.

The FEC found that argument compelling, and a determination was made that the Landrieu campaign had violated no laws, and acted appropriately in giving the money to the Treasury.

But that still left an open question of who had actually made the contributions, if the people whose names were on the cashier's checks didn't make them. The people named as remitters on the cashier's checks were Roger Beaudean, general manager of Cenac Offshore LLC and his wife, Lynn A. Beaudean; Travis Breaux, manager of Southern Fabrications and wife Ena Breaux; Kurt Fakier, owner of Louisiana Paint & Marine Supply and his wife, Cynthia; Andrew Soudelier, personnel manager at Cenac Towing and his wife Renee; James Hagen, manager of CTCO Shipyard of Louisiana; and Melvin Spinella, operations manager of Bayou Black Electric Supply and his wife, Elsie.

Sorting the Evidence

The FEC subpoenaed records of Whitney Bank, interviewed staff and also made its own inquiries of the purported contributors.

A resulting report, now part of the FEC file, details that the illegal contributions date back to communication between a local attorney — who is not accused of violating any laws — and the Landrieu campaign in 2007.

Terrebonne Parish attorney Berwick Duval was approached by the Louisiana finance director of Landrieu's campaign at a fund-raising event in Houma. Duval has 12 relatives, the report notes, who have in the past contributed to Landrieu. Duval agreed to raise money for Landrieu's campaign but had not completed the task by March 30, 2008, resulting in an inquiry from the campaign to Duval.

After an inquiry from the Landrieu committee, Duval communicated that he would pass contributions on shortly.

On April 24, according to the report, Cenac had arranged to obtain six cashier's checks in return for one of his own instruments by calling an assistant manager at Whitney Bank in Houma. Cenac's secretary arrived at the bank and gave the assistant manager written instructions and Cenac's personal check in the amount of $25,300.

According to the report, the cashier's checks were all made payable to "Friends of Mary Landrieu." The instructions, the report says, listed the names of each person who was the remitter and the amount of each check.

On May 14, the Landrieu committee received a FedEx envelope containing six sequentially numbered cashier's checks, according to the investigative report. The report says Duval raised the money from Cenac, whom it described as a "friend and client."

Senatorial Invite

Subsequent investigation determined that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Duval.

During the course of the investigation, FEC personnel, upon interviewing bank employees, learned that in February 2008, Cenac used $15,000 of his corporation's money to buy six cashier's checks in the amount of $2,500 each, made out to "David Vitter for U.S. Senate." Five of the checks listed people other than Cenac as the remitters.

According to the investigative report, Vitter personally invited Cenac to his campaign's annual fundraiser in New Orleans, either in late 2007 or early 2008. On or about Feb. 4, 2008, Cenac bought the six checks from the bank.

The remitters named on the checks were Mr. and Mrs. Berwick Duval; Mr. and Mrs. Arlen Cenac Sr., who are Cenac's parents; Mr. and Mrs. Kurt Fakier; Mr. and Mrs. Tim Solso; Chet Morrison and guest; and Cenac himself.

According to the report, Cenac has told investigators he is unskilled in election law and made the contributions in the mistaken belief that it was not improper to do so in the names of others.

The FEC and Cenac entered into a financial settlement agreement, as the FBI investigated criminal aspects of the case, which resulted in the U.S. Attorney's Office bringing the current action.

Anna Christman, spokeswoman for Boente, said her ability to discuss details of the case is limited.

Questions that remain unanswered are what false statement Cenac is specifically accused of making, since he is not a candidate for office, has filed no documents with the FEC other than responses to questions about the contributions — which the FEC acknowledges he answered — and made no other known statements to them.

On behalf of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, Sloan said she is pleased to see that the U.S. Attorney's Office has chosen to enforce federal law, and that the FEC took the case as seriously as it did.

"We have laws, we are a nation of laws and everyone is expected to follow all of them, not just the ones they like," Sloan said. "You can't get around the law with the goal of influencing politicians. What this guy was doing was hiding the contributions. If you get caught, there are consequences."

Copyright 2014, Tri-Parish Times, Houma, La.

From: John DeSantis, "FEC: Cenac lied about contributions," Tri-Parish Times, Houma, La. May 28, 2013, http://www.tri-parishtimes.com/news/article_af50c984-c7d3-11e2-99da-0019bb2963f4.html, accessed Feb 1, 2014.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Towing company owner gets one-year probation; He pleaded guilty in illegal campaign contributions case
September 6, 2013

A Houma businessman was sentenced in federal court on Thursday for making false statements to the Federal Election Commission related to illegal campaign contributions to Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter in 2008.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier sentenced Arlen "Benny" Cenac, who owns Cenac Towing Co. , to one year probation, a $5,000 fine and a $100 special assessment, New Orleans interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente announced. Cenac pleaded guilty in May.

Cenac used a check held by his towing company to purchase and submit $15,000 in cashier's checks in the names of six couples to the campaigns of Landrieu, a Democrat, and Vitter, a Republican. Cenac wrote a personal check for $25,300 to purchase cashier checks, also for six couples, which were delivered to the Landrieu Senate campaign as political contributions, the FEC said.

Corporate donations, as well as disguising donations, are barred under federal campaign laws. At the time, individual contributions were limited to $2,300 per election cycle.

After receiving the checks, Landrieu's campaign became suspicious, and ultimately decided not to accept the contributions.

Cenac owns and operates one of the largest towing and tugboat services in the state. According to the FEC, Cenac made at least 67 contributions exceeding $71,000 to 26 federal committees in 2008. Last August Cenac agreed to pay a $170,000 fine for the illegal contributions.

Copyright 2013, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation

From: Juliet Linderman, "Towing company owner gets one-year probation; He pleaded guilty in illegal campaign contributions case," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, September 6, 2013, National, p. A-2.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Cenac case mentions local contributions
June 4, 2013

A Federal Elections Commission report says investigators unearthed evidence that a Houma tugboat magnate — now facing a federal criminal charge involving illegal campaign contributions — used a similar bundling scheme in local races.

But the state agency that oversees Louisiana campaign contribution violations is powerless to investigate Arlen "Benny" Cenac's contributions because the activity occurred more than three years ago, which is beyond the statute of limitations state law allows.

Precisely which of the many races Cenac has contributed to might have received money that violated campaign finance laws is nearly impossible to determine at this point.

Cenac is expected to plead not guilty as early as this week to a single count of making a false statement to federal officials, a felony carrying a maximum term of five years in prison at the federal courthouse in New Orleans. Cenac is the CEO of Cenac Towing and companies related to that firm.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., a watchdog group that called the attention of federal authorities to the Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., contributions, said she was not surprised by the allegation of local improprieties. It is a sign, she said, that candidates and their staff need to carefully watch who is giving them donations and to be on the lookout for campaign finance violations.

"States don't have a lot of people in charge of looking for this kind of thing, they don't have the resources, and absent a complaint they are not going to find things on their own," Sloan said.

The federal charge — stemming from the only criminal conduct specifically alleged — arises from a scheme in which Cenac had an employee purchase cashier's checks with his personal checks at Whitney Bank. The cashier's checks were then made out with the names of people Cenac knew as remitters. The cashier's checks were given to the election campaigns of Landrieu and Vitter.

The contributions were over the federal limit allowable by one individual or one company.

Federal law states it is illegal to make a campaign contribution in the name of another person.

The campaigns were found to not be at fault during the FEC probe.

Documents related to the FEC investigation, however, allege that Cenac similarly purchased cashier's checks for local campaigns in 2007, with no other details.

A search of Cenac's contributions that year by the Tri-Parish Times revealed that Cenac had made some campaign contributions. But the names of the people whose names were used in the Vitter and Landrieu schemes — the straw contributors — did not show up in disclosure reports for the local campaigns.

In 2007, according to the Louisiana Ethics Board database, Cenac Towing contributed $5,000 to the campaign of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Cenac himself is listed twice as a contributor to Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain in the amount — $5,000 — during that same year.

No allegations of wrong-doing are assigned to those sets of contributions.

Ethics Board records show Cenac as a contributor to various local and state campaigns over the years, totaling more than $186,000 from 1999 to the present time.

From 1999 to 2001, former Attorney General Richard Ieyoub's campaigns received a grand total of $5,000 Cenac donations.

Ironically, it was Ieyoub's staff investigators who pursued an aggressive — though unsuccessful — attempt to prosecute Cenac on allegations that he molested a child.

A local prosecutor, Lafourche Parish District Attorney Cam Morvant, presented evidence concerning those allegations to a grand jury. The panel neither dismissed nor affirmed the accusations, choosing to pretermit, meaning the case could be revisited in the future. That has never occurred.

Even if someone — as Cenac did in the Senate contests — made contributions in the names of others, the candidate is not at fault if there is no knowledge that it has been done.

The same holds true for PACS, like the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority. That PAC received $25,000 from Cenac in 2010, $25,000 in 2011 and $50,000 in 2012 from Cenac Towing. The PAC is chaired by shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger.

Another PAC listed as a recipient of Cenac's largesse is the CCA Sport PAC, headed by former Coastal Conservation Association president Jeff Angers. Cenac made four contributions to the PAC in his own name, for $1,000 each, in 2003.

Cenac made two contributions of $5,000 each to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco in 2006; Chris Bollinger, who ran for the U.S. Senate, netted $2,500 and $500 from Cenac personally and $2,500 from Cenac Towing in 1999 and 2001; Hunt Downer's gubernatorial run in 2003 received $2,500.

Former State Sen. Reggie Dupre's campaigns were given $500 by Cenac personally in 1999. In 2001, Cenac donated $1,000 to Dupre, as did Cenac Towing.

Former Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti received $2,000 from Cenac in 2004, and, in 2009, Cenac Offshore LLC gifted $1,000 to Rep. Joe Harrison.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has received $25,000 from Cenac or his companies in increments of $5,000. State Treasurer John Kennedy received a total of $8,200 and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain $10,000.

In federal races, Cenac is hardly a newcomer when it comes to contributing to the Vitter campaign. From the time Vitter was a congressman, Cenac has contributed $13,900, not counting the contributions that Vitter turned over to charity due to the current case.

Contributions to Landrieu have been less generous, amounting to only $8,600.

Total federal campaign contributions from Cenac and his companies total $120,854 from 1997 to the present. There are no indications that any of those contributions were made in violation of the law. But uncovering illegal contributions is also a difficult task.

The wrong-doing leading to Cenac's criminal charge only came to light because Landrieu's campaign staff, seeing an appearance of a problem with some contributions but not knowing who was behind them, gave them to the U.S. Treasury, as the law requires.

Had the Landrieu team not been suspicious, however, there might not have been any prosecution at all.

Sloan and other good-government advocates say it is the moral responsibility of candidates to scrutinize their contributions to see where problems might exist.

"Candidates should be concerned and going back if they can, checking on these donations," Sloan said. "He likely started out with legal contributions. You work your way up to the illegal. When you make that crossover you started with something small and then expanded. You get away with more and more."

Copyright 2014, Tri-Parish Times, Houma, La.

From: John DeSantis, "Cenac case mentions local contributions," Tri-Parish Times, Houma, La., June 4, 2013, http://www.tri-parishtimes.com/news/article_d887d44a-cd4c-11e2-976a-001a4bcf887a.html, accessed Feb 1, 2014.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Video adapted from: Lee Zurik and Manuel Torres, "Louisiana's top 400 campaign donors get around legal limits to magnify political influence," WVUE, November 5, 2013, http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/11/louisianas_top_campaign_donors.html, accessed 02/01/2014.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.





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