Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories that looks into what state officials spent on two European trips last year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration spent $12,305 of state money on premium seating at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the Saints-Vikings football game in London last year.
Nineteen people attended the game using public money. The group included Edwards, three members of the governor’s executive staff, four people from Louisiana’s economic development agency, a state transportation official and four state troopers on the governor’s security team.
Six people described as “economic development prospects” also attended the game using Louisiana state money. The Edwards administration has refused to say who they are.
“We do not identify economic development prospects,” said Ron Thibodeaux, a spokesman for Louisiana Economic Development (LED), in a written statement.
The $12,305 also included a catered lunch with wine in an open-seating area at the stadium. One Louisiana economic development official and two of the unnamed “prospects” also watched the game from a more exclusive area akin to a stadium suite, Thibodeaux said.
“The Saints-Vikings football game allowed Louisiana to host prospects and/or existing investors at an event,” he said.
Government transparency advocates said the Edwards administration should name all of the people who attended the game on the taxpayers’ dime.
“While economic development is vital to the future of Louisiana, state agencies like LED need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Transparency is key to building trust with citizens that an expense is justified,” Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said in a written statement.
Other travel costs
Premium seating for football was the state’s biggest single expense during the governor’s six-day economic mission to the United Kingdom last fall. The total trip – arranged around the Saints’ game in London – cost the state at least $69,159 based on travel receipts provided in response to public records requests.
The money covered airplane tickets, food, hotel stays, Uber rides and taxis for 13 government employees, including the governor, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3. First Lady Donna Edwards also joined her husband on the trip.
One of the larger expenses to the state whenever the governor travels is his security detail. Edwards and his wife have state police protection, and Louisiana spent $18,123 – more than a quarter of the total trip’s cost – to send four troopers to London with them.
In addition to the typical travel expenses, the troopers earned $4,738 in overtime pay while abroad. Two troopers also arrived in London two days before the rest of the delegation to evaluate sites for security risks.
State troopers also get reimbursed for expenses they incur while accompanying the governor and his wife on any personal, sight-seeing trips. Louisiana reimbursed three troopers $27.69 each for museum tickets they purchased, presumably while they followed the governor or the first lady.
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The governor’s initial itinerary included a visit to the Churchill War Rooms, a historical site underground where British leaders directed England’s response to World War II.
Edwards and his staff also had in-person meetings with insurance juggernaut Lloyd’s of London and industrial companies already operating in Louisiana. The list included Cheniere Energy Inc., London-based Shell and German chemical company Linde. The three companies have benefited from or applied for state-government tax breaks.
“Every meeting that allows Louisiana to build a trusted relationship with potential investors contributes to the success we achieve,” Thibodeaux said.
There were also two meetings on the London delegation’s schedule with British-based Drax, which runs mills in northeast Louisiana and also recives state tax breaks. The factories, located in Bastrop and LaSalle Parish, produce wood pellets sent to England to fuel a power plant.
The Drax meetings included an afternoon get together with the governor and his economic development staff and a dinner where Drax officials were expected to make the restaurant reservations, according to documents received through a public records request.
European company executives weren’t the only ones the Louisiana delegation met with in London. The schedule for state officials included an evening bar reception sponsored by Hancock Whitney, the Gulport, Mississippi-based bank that operates in Louisiana. GNO Inc., a New Orleans-area economic development organization, helped throw another reception the night before the Saints game.
Another Louisiana business group, the Committee of 100 for Economic Development, helped coordinate the bulk of the trip with the Edwards’ administration. The nonprofit consists of executives from Louisiana’s largest companies and law firms
The Committee of 100 initially paid the $12,305 for the Saints football tickets and catered lunch at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The group later sent government officials an invoice for the event – one that didn’t mention sports tickets. Louisiana’s economic development agency reimbursed the organization for its spending.
“Even if it’s for optical purposes, the state doesn’t like to spend their own money on a suite [for a sporting event],” Michael Olivier, head of the Committee of 100, said in an interview of why his organization initially bought the tickets.
Olivier said the Committee of 100 might have considered covering the bill for the Saints game, but it would have raised questions with the state ethics board.
In many circumstances, Louisiana prohibits government contractors and lobbyists from paying for sports tickets for state workers. The Edwards administration may have avoided that conflict by reimbursing the Committee of 100 for the Saints game.
Louisiana has an operating agreement with Committee of 100 and often participates with the organization in joint marketing activities, Thibodeaux said. The football game fell under this arrangement.
Olivier said major sporting events are an excellent way to promote Louisiana because they give insight into the state’s culture. Potential investors are also invited to other celebrations, such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on a regular basis.
“Professional sports are very common ground [for out-of-state and overseas investors.] States use that to demonstrate their livability,” Olivier said.
When the governor is in Louisiana, he doesn’t have to pay to take potential investors to Saints or Pelicans games. Louisiana’s governor has free reserved suites at the Caesars Superdome and Smoothie King Center, both owned by the state.
Edwards does pay for access to LSU’s Tiger Stadium. He spent $16,010 from his leadership political action committee (PAC) to purchase suites during the 2020 and 2021 football seasons.
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Thursday: Emails show governor’s Europe trip raised staffing, itinerary questions