Marathon contributes to foundation

03 05, 2012 by The Advocate

First lady’s organization benefits from donors with issues before state

First lady Supriya Jindal said her efforts to bring technology to classrooms are thriving, despite the controversy that erupted a year ago over contributions to her foundation.

The governor’s wife said the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children is continuing to provide modern chalkboards — called whiteboards — that stream videos, respond to the touch of a fingertip and display colorful graphics.

“This is such a passion of mine, trying to help our children,” Jindal said.

The first lady started her foundation in 2008 shortly after her husband began his first year as governor.

Tax records from 2009 and 2010 — the most recent years available — show the foundation received more than $500,000 from 19 contributors. There were no contributions in 2008.

According to the foundation’s website, corporations and individuals have pledged to give more than $1.5 million over several years.

Most of the money supporting Jindal’s foundation comes from large contributions from huge corporations with an interest in the workings of state government.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., called CREW, suggested last year that contributing money to the first lady’s efforts is a good way to build a relationship with her husband, Gov. Bobby Jindal.

As governor, Jindal has influence over which bills become law and how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed.

The organization noted that corporations are constricted in how much money they can give to the governor’s campaign yet can give limitless dollars to the first lady’s foundation.

The governor at the time dismissed CREW’s charges as ridiculous after they led to a New York Times story.

“We thought it was worth highlighting,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said Friday.

Despite the criticism, Supriya Jindal said contributions to her foundation continue to come in at a steady clip.

Sloan said she is not surprised.

“He’s still the governor of Louisiana, and people still need stuff,” Sloan said.

Supriya Jindal has a different take on the situation.

“All of our sponsors believed in us so much, they continued to support us,” Jindal said.

Some of the backers of the first lady’s foundation have a financial stake in bills moving through the Legislature or in federal hurricane recovery dollars distributed by state officials. AT&T gave $170,000 to the first lady’s foundation in 2010. Marathon Oil contributed $70,000 that same year. The Walmart Foundation gave $75,000 in 2009 and another $75,000 in 2010.

AT&T has an interest in legislation impacting its business. Marathon received more than $1 billion in special borrowing approved by state officials. Other contributors have held state contracts or are regulated by the state.

Four years ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal, signed legislation into law allowing AT&T to avoid negotiating with individual local governments on offering a package of fiber-optic cable TV, telephone and high speed Internet service. The governor’s predecessor, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, vetoed similar legislation amid concerns that local governments would be negatively affected.

Marathon Oil benefitted from special borrowing that Congress created to spur the recovery after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf coast in 2005.

The corporation received $1 billion of the $7.8 billion in tax-free, low-interest borrowing. Approval was granted in April 2007 by the State Bond Commission.

A spokeswoman for the AT&T Foundation refused comment on whether the organization is continuing to support the first lady’s foundation.

“We won’t have a comment for this story,” said Kim Allen of the AT&T Foundation.

A spokesperson for Marathon Oil referred questions to Marathon Petroleum Corp., which is based in Findlay, Ohio. The company recently split into two energy companies with Marathon Petroleum receiving oversight of the Gary refinery.

Shane Pochard, spokesman for Marathon Petroleum, said the company is in the third year of a four year commitment to donate $280,000 to the first lady’s foundation. “Our corporate values dictate to us that the communities that we live and work in across the eastern United States have us participating in the educational piece of those communities,” he said.

Pochard said the company sponsors backpack drives to collect school supplies and encourages employees to volunteer in schools.

He said Marathon had a long history of supporting local schools before making a donation to the first lady’s foundation.

Other big contributors, including Walmart, Dow Chemical and Alon USA, retain lobbyists to track legislation and influence the political process in Baton Rouge.

Dow Chemical and Alon are regulated by the state.

Jindal’s office at first resisted releasing detailed tax documents showing how much each corporation gave to the foundation in 2010.

The first lady’s assistant, Kellie Duhon, said the Internal Revenue Service code allows organizations, like the first lady’s foundation, to withhold the identities of donors. Duhon produced the documents after it was pointed out that the foundation released similar information last year, before criticism emerged about the organization’s contributors.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Supriya Jindal said of the initial reluctance, adding that she has nothing to hide.

At least one change is evident after CREW’s criticism sparked national coverage of the first lady’s foundation.

The governor’s chief fundraiser, Alexandra Bautsch, once served as the foundation’s treasurer.

Bautsch resigned from the foundation on March 15, 2011, not long after CREW published its report.

Duhon attributed Bautsch’s departure to “other commitments.”

Supriya Jindal said donations still are coming in, despite the controversy.

“This is a foundation that has worked tirelessly to get tools in the classroom,” Jindal said. “All of the money truly does go into the classroom.”

According to tax records and the first lady, the foundation collected:

  • $278,310 in 2009 and donated more than 60 whiteboards to classrooms.
  • $542,685 in 2010 and donated more than 100 whiteboards.
  • Roughly $500,000 in 2011 and donated more than 90 whiteboards.

The whiteboards and the tools that come with them cost about $6,000 each.

In 2010, the foundation began the year with $211,613 in the bank and ended the year with $171,118.

Jindal said the tax records are misleading.

She said donations sometimes come in at the end of the year, leaving the foundation with a sizable balance.

Jindal said money typically is spent on classrooms as soon as it comes in with the exception of expenses for attorneys, accountants and the foundation’s website.

She said she is just shy of implementing whiteboard technology in every parish.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed,” she said.

Jindal said the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children is broadening its focus.

In the next few weeks, the first lady said, the foundation will begin buying tools that kindergarten teachers need for their classroom learning centers. The tools might include counters to teach math or kits to show how a butterfly is born.

“We’re talking to teachers and principals about what else we can do,” the first lady said.