A charitable foundation set up by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's wife has accepted about $790,000 in donations from corporations that also have given to the governor's campaign committee since 2007, a nonpartisan watchdog group said Thursday.
Louisiana state law limits the amount that an individual or corporation can contribute to a political candidate to $5,000 per election cycle. But corporate donors gave much more to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children, which seeks to expand technology at state schools.
The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, alleged in a report that the Louisiana first lady's foundation was a way for corporations to "curry favor with the governor while skirting campaign contribution limits."
"The donations are made not because of the great work of the charity, but because of the connections," said Melanie Sloan, a former prosecutor who is the executive director of Washington-based CREW.
"We're not suggesting he's broken the law," she added. But Sloan said there was "an awfully close relationship between the charity and the government ... If it is not an actual conflict, it is an appearance of conflict."
The report noted that the foundation's treasurer, Alexandra Bautsch, also serves as the governor's fundraiser and that Bobby Jindal's picture appears on the website next to where donations can be made.
Jindal, who was elected in 2007, dismissed the report's conclusions Thursday.
"I think the allegations are silly," Jindal said. "The one thing I do hope comes out of this, I hope people pay more attention to the foundation and its work. I hope they get more supporters."
The Jindal foundation is the most recent example of how powerful interests can seek to influence politicians outside of making campaign contributions. Corporations and lobbyists give millions each year to the favorite charities of members of Congress.
"It's a big problem across the board," Sloan said. "Whenever elected officials are soliciting contributions for charity, there is a coercive element to it _ if they are asking for money from those doing business before them."
Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said Jindal has never solicited donations for his wife's foundation.
The CREW report says nine companies that collectively gave $100,000 to Jindal's campaign committee also donated at least $790,000 to the foundation.
Marathon Oil, which runs a major oil refinery in Garyville, La., pledged $250,000 to the foundation and gave $10,000 to Jindal's campaign committee, the report said. Meanwhile, Marathon subsidiaries have been paid $5.2 million in state funds, the report found.
AT&T has given at least $250,000 to the Jindal foundation while contributing $10,000 since 2007 to Bobby Jindal's political campaigns, the report said. Louisiana has paid AT&T about $22 million since 2008.
Other big donors to both the foundation and the governor's campaigns were Acadian Ambulance, D&J Construction, State Farm, BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana, Northrop Grumman, Wal-Mart and Dow Chemical.
Claude "Buddy" Leach Jr., the chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, said the report raised questions.
"It's the perception that you can have influence with the governor's office through this foundation," Leach said. He stopped short of saying the Jindals had done anything wrong, but said Jindal's fundraiser should at a minimum distance herself from the foundation.
In a telephone interview, Supriya Jindal called her foundation a "nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization" with no paid staff. She said she doesn't receive any compensation and noted the foundation's donors are listed on the website.
She called herself "passionate about science and math education" and that the foundation was bringing much-needed technology into Louisiana schools.
Supriya Jindal said the foundation had installed 170 digital "interactive" chalkboards for schools. She said her aim was to install the boards in all 4,000 of Louisiana's first and second grade classrooms.
The foundation _ set up in July 2008, six months after Jindal took office _ is giving classrooms a $6,000 package that includes the digital board, hand-held devices to interact with the board and a laptop for teachers. The chalkboards can play video, display graphics and react to touch. The boards are made by Promethean, a British company that has donated $250,000 to the Jindal foundation. The company has not donated to Jindal's political campaign, the CREW report said.
Supriya Jindal said her work was helping "revolutionize education and help children realize their dreams."
"Look at many of our classrooms around the state: many of them are simply chalkboard and chalk," she said.
The watchdog group's Sloan saw it differently.
"Louisiana has a lot of needs, and a need for computer chalkboards doesn't seem the highest," Sloan said. "You can do good work, for instance Boys and Girls Clubs, that might be a little less suspect than a charity like this one."