Before he won his first election, a campaign for Louisiana’s Third Congressional District in 2010, Jeff Landry’s claim to fame was his victory, ten years prior, in the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival’s 36th annual Crawfish Eating Competition. Landry, now in his second term as Louisiana attorney general, had a home-field advantage. He grew up right down the street from Breaux Bridge, which, with a population of around 8,100 people, is the largest municipality in South Louisiana’s St. Martin Parish, a veritable metropolis compared to his hometown of St. Martinville.
Landry prevailed by inhaling 20 pounds of mudbugs, which may sound impressive until you discover the all-time winner, Nick Steplocavich, ate 55 pounds and 12 ounces in 1994. The year before Landry claimed the title, the champion was Scott Angelle, future Louisiana Lt. Governor and the son of former Louisiana state Rep. J. Burton Angelle, who defeated former Speaker of the House Bob Angelle, author of a bill officially declaring Breaux Bridge as “crawfish capital of the world.”
Of course, the world can sometimes seem pretty small down in St. Martin Parish.
But this is a story about hunting gators, not boiling crawfish.
100 years ago, at the beginning of the 1920s, when oil and gas companies began dredging canals throughout coastal Louisiana, one of the first victims was the Alligator mississippiensis, the prehistoric predator more commonly known as the American alligator. And because it had suddenly become far easier to see alligators up close and personal, it also became far easier to kill alligators.
People began hunting gators not for food or even for a fancy pair of boots, but for pure sport, and in the process, they very nearly wiped out the entire species.
In 1960, Louisiana finally did what many had been urging for decades: It passed a law that granted the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries the power to regulate alligator hunting. Four years later, with the state’s alligator population critically low, Louisiana began enforcing a series of severe restrictions on hunting, and three years after that, in 1967, the federal government followed, designating the American alligator as an endangered species.
Within 20 years, as a direct result of dramatic reductions in hunting and a “managed harvest program” Louisiana began implementing in 1979, the alligator population bounced back. For the most part, outside of reality television and only a handful of communities that most Louisianians have never heard of, the recreational gator hunt is largely a thing of the past. The state’s restrictive program turned what had been a sport into an expensive and largely inaccessible “experience.” But it didn’t take long for politicians to figure out how to convert this into campaign cash.
For Jeff Landry’s most generous supporters, that involves traveling to a “camp” about 15 miles southeast of Breaux Bridge, somewhere between Coteau Holmes and Catahoula, not far from the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee and deep in the heart of St. Martin Parish darkness.
Nothing luxurious, but luxury homes don’t last long when they’re built by the water in South Louisiana. It’s a nice spread, though it’s a little ridiculous Landry calls the place his “camp” considering it certainly appears to be his friend’s house.
Landry has been hosting political fundraisers at the “camp” since 2011, the first year of his one and only term in Congress. Perhaps ironically, the event didn’t begin drawing significant attention until 2014. That year, a young congressman from Indiana named Todd Rokita took some heat back home when he turned up at the $5,000-a-head fundraiser in the thick of his own reelection campaign.
“Our little crew brought $30,000 for Jeff Landry from Indiana, because we believe he’s good for the country,” Rokita, who is currently serving as Indiana’s attorney general, boasted to Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press. He wasn’t the only one of Landry’s former colleagues to make the pilgrimage. Then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy showed up as well.
The gator hunt quickly earned a spot on Team Trump’s calendar. Don Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle turned up in 2019, as did Citizens United chairman and former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.
Landry is already sending out Save the Date reminders for this year’s gator hunt, the 11th annual, which is set for Sept. 9 through Sept. 11. He’s also soliciting corporate sponsorships.
For $50,000, your business can purchase the naming rights to either the VIP tent or the stage and enjoy a private breakfast with the General himself on Thursday morning.
If you’re interested though, it might be a good idea to ask for receipts.
According to a series of itemized campaign finance reports and documents filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State, since 2014, Jeff Landry has funneled more than $120,000 in campaign donations from his annual gator hunt to a company he owns, Bucks and Ducks Game Management LLC, ostensibly for the purchase of alligator hunting tags.
Hunting tags are not to be confused with alligator hunting licenses, the costs of which are listed separately by Landry’s campaign, which reported spending approximately $21,539 for alligator hunting licenses between 2015 to 2020.
The problem with this accounting, however, is that whereas the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries charges for alligator hunting licenses ($25 for Louisiana residents and $150 for nonresidents), alligator hunting tags are given out for free.
The tags are also non-transferrable and “property specific.” In other words, the total number of alligators that can be hunted during Louisiana’s 60-day alligator season (there are actually two, the “east zone” season, which opens on the last Wednesday of August, and the “west zone” season, which opens on the first Wednesday of September) depends on the location of the hunt. An enterprising alligator hunting operation cannot simply purchase their neighbors’ unused hunting tags as a way of “balancing their books” in the event that they exceed their own quota. It doesn’t work like that by design.
Notably, through the state’s Lottery Alligator Harvest Program, a select number of Louisiana residents have the opportunity to hunt for alligators on public land, and there is a $40 tag fee in that program. Last year, the LDWF provided “more than 430 licensed resident alligator hunters the opportunity to harvest over 1,290 alligators on about 50 wildlife management areas and public lakes throughout the state.” But for our purposes, none of this matters. Landry’s annual gator hunt does not take place on public land.
At this point, you may be wondering whether it’s possible Landry’s campaign simply miscoded their campaign finance reports, using the term “alligator tags” when they were referring to something else entirely. Remember, these tags are free, so presumably, unless some rogue employee at the LDWF has figured out how to swindle a small fortune from the state attorney general, Landry could not have spent anything on tags.
This may seem somewhat convoluted, but the distinctions are important.
Landry and five others incorporated Bucks and Ducks Game Management in March of 2004. His brother Benjamin, with whom he owns a number of other businesses, was listed as the original registered agent. The arrangement isn’t all too unusual for a group of friends who decide to buy or lease a hunting or fishing camp together. Over the years, the structure of their arrangement changed. Jeff replaced his brother as the agent, and earlier this year, they removed three of their original members.
So what does this all mean, and is there an innocent explanation as to why the Landry campaign (and also their affiliated PAC, it’s worth mentioning) has shelled out so much money for free alligator tags? Are they simply paying themselves and attempting to cover their tracks by listing “phantom” expenses?
Landry, no doubt, will claim that these costs aren’t literally for alligator hunting tags; rather, they are to compensate the property owners who allow access to the group from Landry’s annual gator hunt. Property owners can’t sell the tags—remember, they’re non-transferrable, attached to the land itself, and managed by the state—but they can enter into contracts with licensed hunters who want to use their land during alligator season. However, this is the kind of detail you’re supposed to pass along to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. And if Landry is, in fact, paying land owners, that’s also the kind of detail he’s supposed to disclose in his campaign finance reports.
For a number of good reasons, the state of Louisiana, as a matter of general policy, doesn’t want to encourage roving parties of amateur gator hunting tourists. It’s actually not all that easy for just anyone to kill an alligator, legally at least. First, you’ll need a license, and if you’re born after 1969, you’ll also need to complete a training course. If you’re just here for the weekend and you don’t have time to complete the course, then you need to be under the “direct supervision” of a licensed hunter who has gone through the training or a licensed hunter who was born before 1969.
All of this can create a logistical nightmare for someone like Jeff Landry, who doesn’t own a huge expanse of land but would like to invite a bunch of paid guests to Louisiana to thrill kill a pile of gators. It’s easy to imagine how one would attempt to get around these constraints by simply purchasing a bunch of contraband alligator hunting tags, either not knowing or not caring about how doing so makes a mockery of the state’s alligator harvest and conservation programs.
To put all of this into context, consider the meticulous details with which Landry and his PACs (with seemingly zero regard for the prohibition against coordination) have inventoried practically every other expense related to the gator hunt, including things like the purchase of $27.36 worth of twine. Here are all of the expenses related to the gator hunt from 2014-2020. They total $463,359.
It’s more than a little curious that more than 25% of these expenses—26.7% to be precise— are for something impossible to purchase.
When Jeff Landry arrived in Washington D.C. a decade ago, he carried with him between $80,000 to $200,000 in student loan and credit card debt, according to financial disclosure documents filed with the Clerk of the House. The year before he took office, he reported an “earned income” of only $12,000.
We also know that throughout the past decade his campaign has paid him, either through his “staffing” company UST Environmental Services (which presumably stands for “underground storage tank”) or directly, a considerable amount of money. (Believe it or not, a candidate may draw a salary from his campaign, though Landry has never explicitly claimed to be doing so).
During his first year in office, which also happened to be the first year of the gator hunt, his campaign reimbursed him for a number of expenses, all seemingly permissible and otherwise unremarkable. But it also issued the following disbursement:
Incidentally, that year, it didn’t report spending a dime on alligator hunting tags.