In mid-February of 2017, Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, founder of the construction behemoth Cajun Industries, decided to get into the nonprofit news business. He recruited his friend Dan Juneau, the former top boss of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), as its secretary and Kelli Bottger, the head of the Louisiana Federation for Children, a pro-school privatization group, to be its executive director. Allee Bautsch Grunewald, who had overseen Bobby Jindal’s campaign coffers, was hired as the 501(c)(4)’s fundraising consultant. Within a month, Grigsby claimed to have raised more than $1 million for the start-up, though it’s likely he had made Grunewald‘s job easy by just handing her a blank check.
While it presented itself as an online media organization, the truth about Truth in Politics is that it was merely an extension of Grigsby’s empire, his own “fake news” outfit and a way to deceive the public into believing his partisan propaganda was actually objective journalism. There were a few problems though.
No one wanted to put their name on the byline. The ”news” on their website is entirely anonymous, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their credibility. And if readers dug a little deeper, they’d discover the site was really about trolling one man, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a fact that brazenly violates the laws regulating the activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors but are prohibited from using the bulk of its resources on electioneering.
Shortly before the jungle primary, Grigsby, through Truth in Politics, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to air a commercial featuring Juanita Bates-Washington (a.k.a. Juanita Bates, a.k.a. Juanita Stafford, a.k.a. ”Dr.” Juanita Bonds), a former state employee who received a settlement for $108,000 two years ago after alleging she had been sexually harassed by a deputy aide, Johnny Anderson. In the commercial, Bates-Washington asserts that she had been physically assaulted by Anderson and implies she was terminated by Gov. Edwards after reporting the abuse.
Anderson had indeed engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Bates-Washington, and lurid text messages that were entered into the public record by Bates-Washington’s attorney reveal she and Anderson had been involved in a months-long affair that both sought to keep private. However, importantly, Bates-Washington had actually tendered her resignation a full month before making any allegations against Anderson, who was immediately forced to resign. She did not lose her job in retaliation. After Grigsby’s organization began airing the commercial, Bates-Washington’s attorney, Jill Craft, publicly endorsed Edwards, praising him and his administration for the way they responded. Both the commercial and subsequent statements made by Bates-Washington are demonstrably false.
Grigsby was deliberately attempting to manufacture outrage, all with the aim of helping his friend Eddie Rispone. It’s difficult to believe he was ever seriously alarmed by Bates-Washington’s claims against Johnny Anderson, considering he also donated $2,500 to former Congressman Cleo Fields’ campaign for state Senate (Anderson is a very public member of Fields’ political operation).
The Grift that Keeps on Grifting
Lane Grigsby may be able to spend a vast fortune to influence elections, and, as he has repeatedly demonstrated, that has sometimes required him to engage in morally or ethically bankrupt activities.
It’s something he recently underscored after allegedly attempting to bribe Republican state Senate candidate Franklin Foil to drop out of the race in exchange for an offer of financial support for a future run for the judiciary, thereby allowing another Republican candidate a clearer path in what, as of this writing, appears to be an unusual three person run-off.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Grigsby, alleging that he had illegally claimed $779,000 in tax credits, money that should have gone to Uncle Sam. Grigsby has proclaimed his innocence, whining that he was being railroaded because of his support of conservative political causes and Republican candidates, presumably without any hint of irony.
The charges were brought by the Trump administration.
Similarly, after outgoing state Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican from Baton Rouge, confirmed that Grigsby had asked him to pass along a pledge for future financial support to Foil, Grigsby doubled down.
“I am a kingmaker,” he told the Baton Rouge Business Report. “I talk from the throne.” He apparently is embracing Sue Lincoln’s characterization in a Bayou Brief report originally published in January. (Sue also coined the nickname “the Great Grigsby”).
Claitor, an attorney by trade, believes the offer was “possibly illegal.” “I am not Mr. Grigsby’s errand boy,” he said.
At the same time he was launching Truth in Politics, one of nearly three dozen political groups registered under his name, Grigsby was also working with his close friend Eddie Rispone to recruit someone willing to run against Edwards in 2019.
Four years ago, Rispone and Grigsby had realized, early on, that there was little chance David Vitter would win the governor’s race, so instead, they focused on electing a roster of candidates to the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). In years past, BESE elections hadn’t attracted much attention or money, but 2015 was different. All but one of their chosen candidates won their races.
Rispone and Grigsby already knew their money could be used to reshape state government. Both men had been playing the game for nearly two decades.
Still, after two years on the prowl, they struggled to find someone- anyone- who would be willing to run against Edwards under their banner. That was resolved when, according to Rispone, he woke up one morning after God Himself told him he was the Chosen One. (God had also apparently told U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins that Ralph Abraham was His anointed candidate, which is all very confusing, but the Lord works in mysterious ways).
Louisiana has never been in short supply of politicians with Messianic delusions. When Bobby Jindal first ran for governor in 2003, he claimed that Christ found him, not the other way around. And when an exuberant Eddie Rispone took the stage inside of a Baton Rouge casino last Saturday night, he told the audience that they had answered ”God’s prayers.”
But the truth in Rispone’s politics, the deus ex machina of his campaign, the prime-mover of his entire operation- indeed, the reason he found success in business- is all attributable to a man he calls his “mentor,” Lane Grigsby.
If Rispone is elected next month, it will have far less to do with God answering anyone’s prayers and much more to do with Lane Grigsby throwing money to smear anyone who gets in the way of the most ambitious construction project of his entire career: His very own shadow government.
“I’m not a kingmaker, and I don’t want to be,” he told the Town Talk only four years ago (emphasis added). ”My mom used to tell me to try to do what’s right.” At the time, he had spent untold millions to influence Louisiana government and the men and women elected to serve in our government, but he had never come close to where he is today. With the governor’s office finally within his sights, Merice “Boo” Johnston Grigsby’s boy could soon become the most powerful person in the state, even if it means ignoring Boo’s advice to her son about doing what’s right.
Sue Lincoln has already reported on Grigsby’s early career in business; he is one of a handful of construction company executives that belong to a select club Sue refers to as “the Erector Set.” But not much has been reported about his early life.
Leonard Lane Grigsby and I were both born and raised in Alexandria, though he left town before I was alive.
His great-great-grandfather founded the Methodist Church we both attended as children. My great-great-great-grandfather founded the other big Methodist Church of its day, a few miles down the road in Cheneyville. My late grandmother was his high school history teacher. He may have been long gone, but I remember his aunt and his mother Boo.
He got the name Leonard from a maternal uncle and Lane from a paternal grandmother. There had been another famous Lane Grigsby in Louisiana before him, an older cousin, Bettye Lane Grigsby, a classically beautiful singer from Shreveport.
His father, James Pruitt Grigsby, left when he and his sister were both small children, and their mother Boo (Merice) and their aunt Alice raised them in a rambling, two story home on Thornton Court. Boo worked for two decades as the Deputy Tax Assessor of Rapides Parish. His mother’s family were Johnstons, a name that carried some weight in town.
When he was a kid, he couldn’t do anything without attracting the attention of the local newspaper, the Town Talk. They reported on when, at the age of fifteen, he and two friends headed down to Twin Bridges Road to shoot a gun and how one of his friends had given himself a good scare and a couple of superficial injuries after the gun misfired. They kept track of him when he was serving abroad in the Army, when he returned home, when he enrolled at West Point, and when he finally brought his girlfriend Bobbi back to meet his mama.
In 1962, when his estranged father passed away, however, no one paid much attention; the paper didn’t even bother to run an obituary.
Grigsby had to drop out of West Point. He and Bobbi had eloped, and suddenly, she was pregnant. Life was coming at both of them fast.
His story, of course, doesn’t end there, because Boo’s son was hungry; he had something to prove.
His mother stayed in Alexandria, occasionally hosting get-togethers at her home, remaining active in the Methodist Church, and taking a leadership role in the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
But Lane made his way to Baton Rouge, transferred to LSU, finally got his engineering degree in 1967, had three more children, and embarked on a career in construction that would eventually make him and his family extravagantly wealthy.
In August, his mother’s old home on Thornton Court sold for $110,000.
It would be an all-around great, feel-good story. But Lane Grigsby, after making his fortune, trampled into the world of Louisiana politics, and because he had so much money, no one dared to tell him that the same dispassionate, obsessive mind that had built him a fortune could easily become his greatest liability. Money can go a long way in politics. It can buy you access and name-recognition, but to paraphrase the great Paul McCartney, “money can’t buy you love.”
Lane Grigsby decided to get into politics to help ensure people like Lane Grigsby remain wealthy.
Specifically, that means retooling the state government to meet the whims and desires of construction companies: Codifying a suite of tax exemptions and limiting oversight to a select group of hand-picked allies; transforming the state’s higher education into a system that prioritizes vocational and technical training above everything else; privatizing elementary and secondary education and allowing the wealthy to subsidize it in exchange for a tax break; blowing up unions, and eliminating social welfare programs that don’t generate a monetary return on investment.
Government designed by engineers who never took a class in the humanities: Utilitarian, amoral, and entirely divorced from the everyday reality of ordinary people. The end user of this system aren’t those in need; they’re those with means.
It’s the kind of government that professes to be moral, even religious, but fails to understand what is ethical.
It’s cold, joyless, intolerant, and doomed.
And this year, in the personage of Eddie Rispone, it’s on the ballot. Because Eddie Rispone owes much of his career and almost all of his new-found life in politics to Lane Grigsby.
It was Lane Grigsby who advised him to quit his old job before the shit hit the fan. Sell his shares. Start his own company. Lane Grigsby encouraged him to run for governor too, and sure, Rispone has put his own money into his campaign. But behind the scenes, through a shadowy network of PACs and 501(c)(4)s, Lane has been spending just as much.
This year, in addition to the veritable fortune he spent to launch the fake news site Truth in Politics and to air a grossly misleading commercial featuring Juanita Bates-Washington, he was also pouring $100,000 to pay for radio ads in support of an obscurely-known African American Democrat campaigning for governor, Omar Dantzler. The ads aired exclusively on urban radio across the state, and incidentally, before Dantzler had even qualified to run for the office, his candidacy was first revealed on a conservative blog.
Make no mistake: The public may believe that Eddie Rispone is running for governor because his name appears on the ballot, but for the Great Grigsby, this election is merely furniture shopping.
He’s in the market for a new throne.