New Orleans, Louisiana 2021-06-07 10:35:00 –
Twice during the current legislative session, Senate President Page Cortez has taken extraordinary steps to help certain gambling companies that are represented by a former colleague who is close to Cortez.
The friend, Joel Robideaux, became a lobbyist this past year after a 15-year run as a public official, a career that ended after he didn’t seek re-election as mayor of the city and parish of Lafayette in 2019. Before that, he spent 11 years in the state House.
Robideaux’s wins as a novice lobbyist owe largely to actions by Cortez, who is probably the most powerful state legislator. Robideaux’s three primary clients — who pay him somewhere between $200,000 and $450,000 altogether, according to state filings — have all notched major wins during the session, which ends Thursday.
In one instance, Cortez met with the president of the Louisiana Lottery to advise her that he wanted to include the Lottery Corp. in his legislation to establish sports betting in Louisiana. The move would set up Intralot, a gambling firm that has deals with several other state lotteries, to win a contract to be the exclusive provider of sports betting services in bars and restaurants, thanks to a provision in Intralot’s existing contract with the lottery giving it first right of refusal.
Robideaux works as a lobbyist for Intralot.
In another instance, Cortez got a legislative committee to change a bill so it would allow a new form of gambling at racetrack casinos and off-track betting parlors. Using an electronic gambling machine similar to a slot machine, players would bet on the outcome of past horse races. Robideaux represents ELS Gaming, which provides the “historic horse racing” machines in at least one other state.
The political and personal lives of Cortez and Robideaux have long been intertwined. Robideaux, 58, is an accountant by trade, and Cortez, 59, runs a family furniture business. They are both Lafayette Republicans who attended what was then called the University of Southwest Louisiana at the same time. When Cortez first sought a seat in the House, Robideaux, who was already a member, was a key supporter.
In 2017, the two formed Bluebird Heaven LLC and used it to buy 13 acres of land for $325,000 on Picard Road in unincorporated Lafayette Parish, records show. They then divided the land and built houses side by side, with a shared gated entrance.
The company was dissolved in 2020, and there’s no evidence in the public record that the two have ongoing financial links.
In all, Robideaux is earning up to $450,000 as a lobbyist this year for his three main clients: Intralot, ELS Gaming and Ochsner Health System, according to forms he filed with the Ethics Board. He also represents the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Foundation, which pays him less than $25,000. Collectively, that puts him in the top tier of the several hundred registered lobbyists, although some earn significantly more than he does.
Neither Cortez nor Robideaux responded to multiple interview requests for this story.
A well-trod path
Louisiana has a long history of former lawmakers returning to the state Capitol as lobbyists — after a legally mandated two-year “cooling-off period” — and profiting off their relationships with lawmakers.
In 2018, The Advocate and ProPublica found that 35 of the 99 lawmakers who had left the Legislature in the preceding eight years had gone on to work in the spheres of lobbying, consulting, government affairs or other government-related work.
But if the path Robideaux is following is a well-trod one, few ex-legislators-turned-lobbyists start out with such enviable access to a key decision-maker. As Senate president, Cortez decides who chairs each committee, who sits on the committee and which bills are heard on the Senate floor. He also can reward and punish legislators by deciding whether they receive coveted spending projects for their district.
Numerous Capitol insiders have raised concerns privately about the relationship between Cortez and Robideaux, but few are willing to say anything publicly.
“Everyone is concerned about taking on the Senate president,” said Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative, religious-affiliated group that highlights the social cost of gambling.
In 2020, as lawmakers were responding to the pandemic, Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, appointed Robideaux as vice chair of a task force aimed at coming up with legislative solutions to revitalize the economy.
The task force recommended, among other things, a grant program for small businesses, using federal funds. Robideaux and Jason DeCuir, a former state tax official turned lobbyist who chaired the committee, together sought a potentially multi-million-dollar contract to run the program. This prompted the second-ranking member of the House, a fellow Republican, to call on the two to pull their application. Treasurer John Schroder, also a Republican, ultimately hired another company.
Cortez arranges meeting
In the weeks before the 2021 session began, Cortez arranged a meeting with Rose Hudson, the head of the Louisiana Lottery Corp. Cortez wanted to get bars and restaurants a piece of the sports betting industry, which is set to get underway in Louisiana once lawmakers establish the rules.
Cortez’s original bill contained a provision — which was ultimately tacked onto another piece of legislation — to give the lottery oversight of betting via phones and kiosks by patrons of bars and restaurants.
That was a boon for Intralot, which already provides lottery services for Louisiana, maintaining lottery terminals at gas stations and other retailers.
In its most recent contract with the Lottery Corp., dating to 2009, the firm included an important clause: “(Intralot) will have the first right of refusal regarding sports betting and internet wagering if approved for operation by the lottery or otherwise through the corporation.”
Hudson said she was “taken aback” at Cortez’s request that the lottery handle sports betting; it was not on her radar. But she said the lottery has a “track record” to handle gaming, adding that legislative leaders saw it as a good way to bring the bars and restaurants into the business.
A number of other states that have legalized sports betting have also put their lotteries in charge of regulating it.
The final bill approved by the Legislature includes Cortez’s plan to give the lottery the exclusive ability to set up sports betting in bars and restaurants, while also competing in the more wide-open arena of betting by smart-phone app. It’s awaiting the governor’s signature.
The sponsor of the compromise bill, Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, said he believes the lottery has the infrastructure in place to do the job. He said choosing the lottery had “nothing to do with” Intralot or its lobbyists.
He also downplayed the value of that component of the bill.
“I don’t think anybody thinks it’s going to be the bulk of the money or even a huge chunk. But it gives us an opportunity to go home and say we gave everyone an opportunity to participate,” he said.
Stefanski also said he’s confident lottery officials can run the program effectively. He said he spoke with virtually everyone who has an interest in sports betting while ushering the legislation through.
Intralot is paying Robideaux $50,000 to $100,000 for his work. He registered as a lobbyist for the company in February. Four lobbyists for Cornerstone Government Affairs also represent Intralot, with each one receiving $50,000 to $100,000 for their work.
A new way to wager
Cortez assisted another Robideaux client when he took the extraordinary step of appearing alongside another senator to present a bill before the House Commerce Committee that would legalize “historical horse racing” machines. The Senate president and House speaker rarely assist other lawmakers when they present their bills in committee.
At issue was Senate Bill 209 sponsored by state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco. He said it would tweak how people bet on horse racing.
Cortez then offered a brief summary of an amendment — though he left out many of the details.
“This adds historic horse racing as a possibility,” he said. “Historic horse racing is simply a pari-mutuel pool wager where you try to predict the winners of a race that occurred in the past. You have no idea when it occurred. It appears on the screen.”
Cortez told committee members that horsemen and the racetracks would split the extra revenue from the machines and that this would allow Louisiana to offer higher purses. This would make the state more attractive to the racing industry.
“The effect of that is it would put more money into purses and supplement this whole industry,” he added. “It’s an industry with thousands and thousands of employees throughout the state and everybody’s district. It’s just an opportunity to keep us up with the states of New York, Kentucky and Oak Lawn Park in Arkansas who have all passed this. There are a lot of other states doing this. We’ve fallen behind.”
Some key details of the amendment that didn’t come up at the hearing. Among them: It would allow an unlimited number of historical horse racing machines at the state’s racetrack casinos and off-track betting parlors. This could amount to a dramatic expansion of gambling in Louisiana — but unlike most expansions, it apparently won’t require a vote of the people because it’s not considered a new type of gambling.
In addition, the way the money will be split also means the machines might not generate extra tax revenue for the state — though additional tax revenue is the usual argument in favor of expanding gambling.
Moreover, in a highly unusual move, the legislation would allow the machines to be installed on an expedited basis. Not allowing this, according to the bill, would constitute “a matter of peril to public health, safety and welfare.”
“This is a bridge too far, way too far,” said Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum. He called the threat to public health “laughable.”
Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, said Cortez’s introduction of the amendment surprised his industry, which fears that it could take away business from his clients’ slot machines.
No one filed a red card to speak out against the amendment.
SB 209 is awaiting action by the House. If it passes, one company that is poised to benefit from Cortez’s gambit is ELS Gaming, one of Robideaux’s three primary clients.
ELS says on its website that it recently installed 2,000 historical horse racing machines at the Colonial Downs track in Virginia and the state’s OTB parlors. This led to the return of live racing at the track and created jobs and tax revenue for the state, ELS said. The company is also moving forward with plans to introduce historical horse racing in Oregon and Arizona.
The company, which did not respond to an interview request, is paying Robideaux $50,000 to $100,000 for his work in Louisiana. He is the firm’s only Louisiana lobbyist.
Doctor bill dies quietly
One of the session’s most contentious fights pitted the state’s largest health systems and doctors groups against one another over non-compete agreements written into doctors’ contracts.
Ochsner, which deploys non-compete provisions regularly, was battling against Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady and the Louisiana State Medical Society, among others. Each side had lined up a battalion of lobbyists — at least 10 were representing OLOL, and more than a dozen advocating for Ochsner.
In December, Ochsner added another: Robideaux, agreeing to pay him between $100,000 and $249,999, according to state records. It is his biggest account. Ochsner, between its health system, foundation and other affiliates, employs 18 lobbyists. Robideaux is one of six to make the highest tier of pay, in the six figures.
Despite Ochsner’s lobbying might, the effort to roll back non-competes gained momentum. A bill by Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, to limit their use sailed through the House Commerce Committee in early May, and passed the House a week later on a 56-39 vote, with the support of Schexnayder.
But when it got to the Senate, the bill screeched to a halt.
Wright tried but failed to negotiate a compromise before bringing the bill to the Senate Committee on Commerce. He wound up withdrawing the bill before members voted.
“It became apparent it would not pass committee,” Wright said. He declined to speculate on what doomed it.
Whether Cortez played a role in the bill’s defeat is not clear, but the death of the legislation spelled another triumph for one of Robideaux’s clients.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said he never told Wright he couldn’t have a hearing on the bill, and said Wright simply couldn’t gain a consensus among the warring factions to pass the bill. He said neither Cortez nor Robideaux talked to him about the bill.
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