Judge throws out La. attorney general’s election grant suit

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana state district judge has dismissed Attorney General Jeff Landry’s lawsuit seeking to block millions of dollars in grants to local election leaders, offered through a nonprofit backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The Advocate reports Landry said he will appeal the ruling from Judge Lewis Pitman, of the 16th Judicial District in St. Martin Parish, that threw out the lawsuit last week. But already the dispute over the money has kept the grants from flowing to Louisiana.

The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life said it was offering the grants to help local leaders run elections during the coronavirus pandemic. Zuckerberg funded the grants with a $300 million donation to the nonprofit, and followed it with another $100 million earlier this month after saying on Facebook he received a “far greater response” than anticipated.

Local election officials across Louisiana initially applied for $7.8 million in grant money after Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin told parish clerks of court and registrars of voters about the opportunity. The officials said they planned to use the money for coronavirus-related costs, such as equipment, personal protective gear and wages for workers staffing voting sites for longer hours.

But Landry pushed back against the idea. The Republican attorney general told the officials the grants were illegal, and he filed the lawsuit asking a judge to declare the grants illegal. Local officials then backed off the grant money.

Landry’s lawsuit argued private money going to public entities to run elections would have a “corrosive influence.” The suit named as defendants the Center for Tech and Civic Life and Dawn Cole, a lobbyist who helped connect local officials to the grant money.

Judge Pitman ruled against Landry from the bench last week.

“The judge said we had no cause of action,” Landry said. “I just think he was a little confused. These issues can sometimes become complicated. I think he misapplied the procedure.”

Cole’s lawyers said Landry’s effort was keeping officials from tapping into much-needed funds. They argued the Louisiana Constitution allows private donations to local governments.

“The petition rests on little more than unfounded statements suggesting that the nonprofit corporations are somehow attempting to taint the election process, amounting to nothing more than a scare tactic aimed at preventing local election officials from gaining additional funding to assist with the workload, increased voter turnout and added burdens posed by COVID-19,” attorneys for Cole wrote.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life called such lawsuits “frivolous.”

“Another day, another judge rejecting baseless litigation that would make it harder for all voters to participate in the election and remain safe and healthy,” the organization said in a statement.

Beyond the lawsuit, Landry successfully pushed a bill sponsored by House GOP leader Blake Miguez to declare such grants illegal. Lawmakers passed the measure on a largely party-line vote in the just-ended special session and sent it to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said Monday that he vetoed the bill.

Louisiana was one of several states where Republican officials went to court over the Zuckerberg funding, seeking to stop it from flowing to election officials.

Though Ardoin initially encouraged grant applications, the Republican secretary of state later switched his position and said he agreed with the attorney general that such funding shouldn’t be allowed.