Published: Friday, May 27, 1994
Dateline: BATON ROUGE
Byline: By PETER NICHOLAS Capital bureau
Normally, when Senate President Samuel Nunez strides through the plushly carpeted Senate aisles, it's to give out committee assignments or sound out his colleagues on an upcoming vote.
But as the Senate considered legislation one day last week, Nunez was passing out envelopes containing $2,500 campaign checks from gambling boat owner Louie Roussel III.
Even in Louisiana, where the relation between money and politics is well understood, some have been taken aback by the brazenness of passing out hefty campaign checks on the floor of the Senate.
"I'm uncomfortable with the manner in which it was done," said Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, who said he received one of the checks but returned it.
But Nunez, a Chalmette Democrat, said he doesn't see what the big deal is.
"Somebody has to do it," Nunez said. "I'm like a messenger . . . Louie Roussel is a very benevolent man. He's been very good in working with the Legislature. He's been in the horse business all his life and over the years he's given contributions to the Legislature and he's going to continue to do so, I'm sure."
Roussel could not be reached for comment.
Nunez said he gave checks to five or 10 senators, distributing some at the Pentagon apartments across from the Capitol, others in legislative offices beneath the chamber, and the rest on the Senate floor.
"This is where I see them," Nunez said.
As an owner of the Star Casino riverboat and trainer of horses that race at the Fair Grounds - which won a tax break at the just completed session - Roussel has interests that are sensitive to legislative action. He wants unrestricted entry to the Star while the boat is dockside. That's a legislative prerogative.
He also owns a small piece of the land casino planned for New Orleans and thus has a keen interest in any bills dealing with taxation and regulation of casino gambling.
The contributions given by Roussel won't be made public until campaign finance reports covering 1994 are filed next February. Contributions given today will likely be used to fill campaign funds for elections set for the fall of 1995.
Sen. Mike Cross, D-Baker, said that since he entered the Senate in 1981, he can't recall the president ever passing out campaign checks on the Senate floor while the body was in session. But he said Nunez's actions gave him no qualms.
"It really didn't bother me," Cross said.
Cross said a week before he took the check, one of Roussel's lobbyists telephoned and asked if he would accept a $2,500 campaign contribution from the Star Casino.
"I told him I didn't vote for any of the gambling but if he wants to give it to me I'll take it anyway," Cross said.
Sen. Donald Kelly, D-Natchitoches, one of the Senate's power brokers, said Nunez gave him a $2,500 check from Roussel in the elevator that connects the Senate floor and the basement offices.
Sen. Jim Cox, D-Lake Charles, conceded that he, too, accepted a check from Roussel. Asked if it was delivered by Nunez on the Senate floor, Cox said: "No comment."
The image of the Senate president disbursing thousands of dollars in campaign contributions while the Senate debated legislation didn't sit well with some members.
"We saw him and it looked like the envelopes were going to fall out of his coat pocket," Hollis said.
"There's nothing legally wrong with it, but when you're down there voting and someone hands you an envelope, it doesn't look real good," said Sen. Dennis Bagneris, D-New Orleans, the second-ranking member of the body. He said he didn't get a check from Roussel that day.
Another senator, who requested anonymity said, "Obviously it could have been done in an anteroom or in people's offices. I imagine that goes on all the time. But there ought to be a line drawn as to distribution directly on the floor of the Senate."
Asked to reply, Nunez said: "He must not have gotten a check."
Illustration: SENATE PRESIDENT SAMUEL NUNEZ, SEN. KEN HOLLIS,
Copyright © The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.