Monday, May 27, 2024

From one swamp to another: Welcome to Washington Mardi Gras

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Ahead of a state special session on insurance next week, many of Louisiana’s elected officials, business leaders and state lobbyists decamped to Washington, D.C., for the annual Washington Mardi Gras. The politically-fueled celebration this week features dozens of corporate parties, business group luncheons and candidate fundraisers.

While official events don’t get underway until Thursday, hundreds of attendees arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday to take advantage of the week’s unofficial welcome parties thrown by the Louisiana congressional delegation and industry groups.   

Congressman Garret Graves, who still hasn’t announced whether he’ll run for governor yet,  gave one group a nighttime tour of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday night. Congressman Troy Carter held an open house at his Capitol Hill office in the Cannon office building Wednesday. 

On Wednesday night, Cheniere Energy, which operates a large liquefied natural gas export terminal in Cameron Parish, rented out The Anthem, a midsize concert venue, for a D.C. Mardi Gras kickoff party.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which runs Louisiana’s largest hospital, also hosted an event earlier Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. It took place in a room next door to the hotel lobby, where Attorney General Jeff Landry was hosting a fundraiser for his 2023 governor campaign. 

Yet another welcome party sponsored by video poker lobbyist Alton Ashy was also taking place down the hall. The Waldorf Astoria was also the site of a fundraiser for Solicitor General Liz Murrill, who is running for attorney general this year, earlier in the evening. Many attendees of Landry’s fundraiser wore both “Landry” and “I’m with Liz” stickers. 

Mardi Gras king of controversy 

Like other Carnival krewes, Washington Mardi Gras has a royal court, typically made up of a king and queen with political connections. 

Shipping magnate and Louisiana political mega-donor Donald T. “Boyzie” Bollinger has been D.C. Mardi Gras king twice, in 1992 and 2007. Baton Rouge firearms dealer Richard Lipsey, a political donor to Govs. John Bel Edwards and Bobby Jindal, was crowned king last year. 

This year’s king may draw some extra attention. Fred Heebe is not only a major political donor, he was also the high-profile target of a federal investigation that alleged he made illegal campaign donations following Hurricane Katrina. 

Heebe allegedly funneled campaign cash through nonexistent companies, which is illegal, to former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in order to shut down landfills that competed with his own, River Birch in Jefferson Parish, though federal charges were never filed against him.

The government’s case against Heebe fell apart after Heebe’s lawyers revealed federal prosecutors were posting comments on under aliases about news stories that involved the New Orleans area U.S. Attorney’s office.

The Times-Picayune also reported that Heebe settled a civil lawsuit brought by Waste Management Inc., which claimed it lost business when Nagin quickly shut down its dump after allegedly taking bribes from Heebe and his business partner, father-in-law Jim Ward. 

All the scrutiny hasn’t prevented political candidates from continuing to accept Heebe’s campaign donations. Heebe and Ward were among the largest financial contributors to the governor’s 2019 reelection campaign. In the past, they also gave money to State Treasurer John Schroder, who is running for governor, and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is running for reelection, according to The Advocate.

As Washington Mardi Gras king, Heebe is also putting up a lot of cash to throw what amounts to a three-day party for Louisiana’s political elite, including most of the state’s most influential elected officials. Recent D.C. Mardi Gras kings have reportedly spent over $1 million on the event, which features a Saturday night ball and formal parties on Thursday and Friday. 

The Washington Hilton – where the Washington Mardi Gras ball will take place – has large posters of Fred Heebe on the poles in its lobby in honor of the event. 

Speaking of fundraisers…

Landry says his Wednesday night event, which was followed by a private dinner for donors, raised a whopping $500,000 for his gubernatorial campaign.

The attorney general is already beating his political rivals when it comes to raising money, but it’s also very early in the race. In 2015, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter also had a lot more money than any other candidate in January, and he still ended up losing to Edwards in December. 

Among the people who attended Landry’s fundraiser were President Donald Trump’s former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt of Missouri, Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins and Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Louis Gurvich, who helped secure Landry a controversial early endorsement from the party.

Other Republican candidates for governor – Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and state Rep. Richard Nelson – are also hosting their own campaign fundraisers during Washington Mardi Gras. Schroder held his Wednesday night at the Washington Hilton. Hewitt and Nelson’s take place Thursday, according to LaPolitics Weekly.

No love lost between Nungesser and Landry

Nungesser may have decided not to run for governor this year, but that doesn’t mean he’s going any easier on Landry.

While checking into the Washington Hilton Wednesday, the Republican lieutenant governor reiterated that Landry was “not a good person” and said he would be willing to vote for a Democrat over Landry for governor. Nungesser said Landry had relentlessly attacked him over the past few months, when Nungesser was still seriously considering jumping into the governor’s race.

“He personally reported me to the FBI three times,” Nungesser said.

The lieutenant governor has previously confirmed he is the subject of a current FBI probe and he has been investigated by federal authorities previously. A state librarian is also suing Nungesser, saying he fired her over reporting his “questionable” government contracts to the FBI. 

Yes, that was him 

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson is one of the thousands of attendees at Washington Mardi Gras this year. He was spotted with a group eating lunch in a Washington Hilton bar Wednesday.

Edmonson’s tenure as head of state police overlapped with both Jindal and Edwards terms as governor. He stepped down shortly after it was discovered that state troopers had taken a taxpayer-funded trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas with his permission. A state audit later concluded Edmonson also used public resources, including prisoner labor, to personally benefit himself.

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