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Rediff.com  » Business » US Inc funded charity run by Bobby Jindal's wife

US Inc funded charity run by Bobby Jindal's wife

Last updated on: March 4, 2011 16:42 IST

US Inc funded charity run by Bobby Jindal's wife

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

A charitable foundation headed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's wife Supriya Jindal, has accepted around $790,000 from nine companies that funded the election campaign of her husband, a Washington-based non-partisan watch dog has said.

Even as there were reports that the Department of Justice was investigating Louisiana Governor Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal's administration for possible violation of federal voting laws, the New York Times on March 3, in a major investigative report disclosed how the state's biggest corporate players, "many with long agendas before the state government," while restricted in making campaign contributions to Jindal, could "give whatever they like to the foundation set up by his wife months after he took office."

The Times said, AT&T, which needed Jindal, a Republican, to sign off on legislation allowing the company to sell cable television services without having to negotiate with individual parishes, had pledged at least $250,000 to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children.

It also reported that Marathon Oil -- which last year won approval from the Jindal administration to increase the amount of oil it can refine at its Louisiana plant - and military contractor Northrop Grumman - which got state officials to help set up an airplane maintenance facility at a former Air Force base - had also committed to a $250,000 and $10,000 donation respectively to the charity.

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Image: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington February 28, 2011.
Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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The Times said, according to its investigation, the foundation has collected nearly $1 million in previously unreported pledges from major oil companies, insurers and other corporations in Louisiana with high-stakes regulatory issues.

"It is among the newest of charities set up by elected officials, including members of Congress, or their families that are mutually beneficial: companies seeking to influence politicians or curry favor can donate unrestricted amounts of money, while the officials benefit from the good will associated with charitable work financed by businesses," the newsapaper said.

Interestingly, Jindal had made tightening Louisiana's ethics rules a centerpiece of his administration and had promised to crack down on the influence of special interests, the paper added.

The Times quoted Anne Rolfes, founding director of an environmental group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade as saying that the donations to Supriya Jindal's charity compromise the governor's pledge.

"It may be a good cause, but it creates the appearance he is being bribed," Rolfes said. "And if you are truly committed to ethical behavior, you just need to stay away from it all together."

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Image: The Times said the foundation has collected nearly USD1 million.

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Mrs Jindal has won praise - and frequent positive newspaper coverage - as she travels Louisiana passing out free equipment to schools, many in lower-income areas, the Times reported, and noted that her foundation spends almost all of the money it takes in to buy high-tech whiteboards installed so far in 50 schools.

While the charity is named and led by Mrs Jindal, the governor has not entirely distanced himself.

The newspaper said a photo of him alongside his wife is on a corporate solicitation page on the foundation Web site, and his chief fund-raiser is listed as the charity's treasurer on its most recent tax return.

A state employee from the governor's office who is an aide to Mrs Jindal is listed as the contact for the foundation's books.

Jindal's press secretary Kyle Plotkin, had strongly defended the governor, who has often been spoken as a possible presidential Republican candidate in 2012, even though he has dismissed such speculation saying he's interested only in serving a second terms as Louisiana's chief executive.

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Image: Bobby and Supriya Jindal.
Photographs: Reuters
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Plotkin, according to the Times, said Jindal had not personally intervened to help any of the charity's corporate donors advance their agendas before the state government and that any suggestion that the foundation is a way to lobby the governor or thank him for a past action is ridiculous.

"It is a completely nonpolitical, nonpartisan organization created by the first lady, who as an engineer and the mother of three children, has a passion for helping our young people learn science and math," Plotkin, was quoted as saying. "Anything other than this reality has plainly been dreamed up by partisan hacks living in a fantasy land."

But the Times said its review of the donors shows the broad range of regulatory power that the governor and his administration holds over these companies, which otherwise are limited in making a maximum contribution of $5,000 per election to  Jindal, or $10,000 for certain political action committees.

It pointed out that Dow Chemical, which has pledged $100,000 to the foundation, is the largest petrochemical company in Louisiana and has had numerous interactions with state officials during the Jindal administration, including an investigation into a July 2009 spill at its St. Charles Parish plant that forced the evacuation of area homes.

The state in December 2009 proposed fining the company and its Union Carbide subsidiary for allowing the release of a toxic pollutant and failing to quickly notify state authorities of the leak, but so far no fine has been assessed.

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Image: Supriya Jindal with school children.

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An Israeli oil company, Alon USA, that has pledged $250,000 to the Jindal Foundation, last year sought permit changes that would allow it to discharge more pollutants at its Krotz Springs refinery, the Times reported.

In 2009, state environmental officials also eased requirements for the company to check for spills of oil, ammonia or other contaminants in waterways to twice a month, instead of twice a week, records show.

Jeff Morris, Alon USA's president, said his company expected no special favors in return for its contributions to the Jindal Foundation or other charities.

"I can understand how people might be concerned, when you have a congressman or others who have their own charities," he told the Times.

"But that is not the case here. It is apparent that the children of Louisiana have been blessed by Supriya's involvement."

Paul Weeditz, a spokesman for Marathon Oil, said the company had long supported schools near its Louisiana refinery and found Mrs Jindal's charity a good fit with its philanthropy.

The pledge is "absolutely not" related to the company's regulatory agenda, he said.

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Image: Alon USA.

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But the Times report pointed out that several of the charity's major donors are large state contractors, like Acadian Ambulance, or D&J Construction, which alone has received $67.6 million in contracts since 2009, mostly for highways, said a separate report on the foundation being issued this week by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Both companies have pledged at least $10,000 to the foundation.

Ethics watchdog groups say the contributions are no accident.

"The motives might be good," said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which has also examined public records detailing the operations of Mrs Jindal's charity.

"But the donations that come into charities like this are almost always from folks who want something from a politician. It is a troubling phenomenon," she told the newspaper.

The Jindal Foundation, started in July 2008, has spent about $1 million and installed about 170 interactive whiteboards that Mrs Jindal, trained as a chemical engineer, calls "revolutionised chalkboards for the 21st century," at a cost of around $6,000 per classroom, including training, about 30 handheld devices for students and a teacher's laptop.

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Image: The Foundation's logo.

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The devices, which allow teachers to download multimedia lesson plans to help teach math or science, are made by a British company, Promethean, and installed by its Louisiana distributor, AXI Education, the Times report said, and noted, other state and federal funds - and donations - have paid for installation of about 13,000 of the whiteboards at schools across the state, according to Dale Viola, AXI's president.

"This is not a publicity stunt," Viola said of Mrs Jindal's efforts to install more of the devices. "I have never seen someone so dedicated to a cause."

The Times also pointed out that Alexandra Bautsch, the governor's top political fund-raiser, was listed as the charity's treasurer and that Bautsch has continued to be paid by  Jindal's campaign - $112,500 last year.

But it acknowledged, none of the officers, including Mrs Jindal, were paid for their work.

The newspaper said that in recent years, foundations linked to more than a dozen members of Congress, have routinely accepted donations from businesses seeking to influence them.

In some instances, the lawmakers have intervened with federal agencies or taken up legislation on donors' behalf.

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Image: Supriya and Bobby have three young children aged 8, 5 and 3.

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Sloan argued that elected officials like Jindal should be prohibited from having close ties with a charity that uses their name or image to help collect donations while they are in office, particularly if the donors have business before the state.

She told the Times that at a minimum, all contributions should be disclosed, she said.

"Foundations tied to politicians see their donations dry up when the politician is no longer in power," Sloan said. "That demonstrates the real reason the charities get the donations is their political position, not because of the good works they do."

Meanwhile, according to a published report in last week's Washington Examiner, J. Christian Adams, a former attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, claimed that while the Department has allegedly frozen travel within the agency, it has sent scores of undercover investigators into Louisiana to interview welfare recipients to determine whether state welfare offices encouraged them to register to vote.

Adams claims that the ultimate purpose of the investigation is to file a federal lawsuit against the Jindal administration.

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The Indian American Conservative Council, an ardent supporter of Jindal pounced on this report, with its chairman Dino Teppara saying, "This latest news from the Justice Department appears to be a solution in search of a problem."

Teppara, a former chief of staff to Congressman Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, who volunteered on Jindal's gubernatorial campaign, said, "Governor Jindal is well-respected as a policy leader who reaches across gender, racial and political lines to put the people of Louisiana first. He does not seek the political spotlight, but rather attempts to bridge gaps between different communities and find solutions to common problems. This news is very disappointing."

He claimed, "This selective investigative cherry-picking of Justice Department lawyers of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is disconcerting to say the least."

Teppara, an attorney by training, said, "This law also required military recruiting centers to provide voter registration and requires states to maintain the integrity of voter lists by purging deceased individuals and convicted felons from their voter rolls.

While these sections of the law should also be enforced, they're not, and instead, we're seeing a selective investigation.

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Image: US Justice Department seal.

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He said, "Pirates are sailing the seven seas, terrorists are still trying to infiltrate our borders and drug trafficking continues unabated across our southern border, yet the Justice Department in its infinite wisdom decides to investigate whether welfare recipients in Louisiana were offered voter registration forms."

Teppara exhorted the US Congress "to ask for a cost-benefit analysis from the Justice Department and a detailed financial report, highlighting all salaries, travel, hotel and food expenses paid by the Justice Department in furtherance of this investigation."

"A new day is dawning on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the nation, where Americans are demanding accountability for their taxpayer dollars. It's high time the Justice Department comes forward and explains the necessity of this investigation and its cost to American taxpayers," he said.


Image: Capitol Hill, Washington DC.

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