Gov. Bobby Jindal loves to travel across the country telling anyone who will listen about the “gold standard” of ethics reform he singlehandedly passed to strengthen Louisiana’s ethics laws as one of his first acts upon taking office in 2008.
Except it simply isn’t so.
There are more than 981,000 reasons that indicate Jindal’s boasts are just so much hot air, devoid of any substance.
More than 300 candidates for local, state and national offices, many of them attorneys (and more than a few disbarred attorneys) owe more than $891,500 in fines for filing campaign finance reports late or not at all.
Moreover, 25 political action committees (PACs) owe an additional $90,000, according to figures provided by the Louisiana Board of Ethics.
So, just how is it that so many fines and such a large amount—at least four candidates had accrued penalties in excess of $25,000 each—have managed to go uncollected for so long (some dating as far back as 1999)?
For the answer to that, we have to go all the way back to January, 2008, Jindal’s first month in office. One of his first acts was to call a special session of the legislature to pass his “ethics reform” package that effectively gutted the State Board of Ethics. Ten of the board’s 11 members resigned in protest—seven of those because the “reform” legislation transferred ethics enforcement power from the state ethics board to administrative law judges, a move that rendered the board useless.
Next question: What’s so wrong with turning enforcement power over to administrative law judges? Well, for starters, the administrative law judges are selected by an appointee of the governor, hardly a hands-off, arms-length, non-political approach to ethics. In fact, Elliot Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and political analyst, observed the Jindal package created a situation in which “we could have people with a relationship with the governor (enforcing ethics laws).”
For decades the ethics commission had full authority to bring charges, hear cases and impose penalties on public officials accused of wrongdoing. No more.
Former Ethics Chairman Frank Simoneaux, who has been critical of the manner in which the ethics board and the administrative judges have interacted on issues, said he agrees that the responsibility for investigating and deciding ethics cases should be split but that administrative judges are not the method that should be employed.
Oh, and there’s this: Jindal proposed the legislation while he was under investigation by the Louisiana Board of Ethics. The timing of his “reform” measures has to be considered at least somewhat suspect, given that the ethics commission cited Jindal’s campaign for campaign finance disclosure violation just before Jindal pushed through his package.
Examples of outstanding ethics fines for late campaign finance reports include:
• Richard C. Bates, a 2006 candidate for 24th Judicial District Judge (Jefferson Parish) who has since been disbarred: $2,600;
• Michael Bell, former legislative assistant to former Sen. Wilson Fields (now a district judge) and himself an unsuccessful 2011 candidate for the state senate: $3,260;
• District Judge Wilson Fields, unsuccessful 2010 campaign for First Circuit Court of Appeal: $1,000;
• William Bowman: unsuccessful 1997 candidate for St. Helena Parish Clerk of Court: $2,720;
• Raymond Brown: unsuccessful 2004 candidate for Orleans Parish Sheriff: $9,500;
• Douglas Castro: unsuccessful 2005 candidate for Orleans Parish Clerk of Court: $10,420;
• Albert Donovan, former legal counsel to Gov. Edwin Edwards, 2003 unsuccessful candidate for Secretary of State: $39,500;
• James Fahrenholtz: 2000 and 2004 candidate for Orleans Parish School Board: $41,000;
• Sandra Hester: unsuccessful 2004 candidate for Orleans Parish School Board: $10,660;
• Percy J. Marchand: unsuccessful 2007 candidate for Orleans Parish state representative: $26,600;
• Robert Murray: unsuccessful 2003 and 2007 candidate for state representative: $16,900;
• Donald Ray Pryor: unsuccessful 2002 candidate for Orleans Parish Registrar: $36,200;
• Gary Wainwright: unsuccessful 2007 candidate for Orleans Parish District Attorney: $30,700;
The Ethics Commission is so weakened by Jindal’s 2008 ethics revamp that it is not only unable to collect outstanding fines but it is even powerless to prevent those with unpaid fines from running in subsequent political races.
Enforcement is just as ineffective with political action committees.
The United Democratic Ballot, Inc., for example, owes $14,000 in unpaid fines dating back to 2002.
• The Westbank Independent Coalition (Jefferson Parish): $8,000 in 2003;
• The African American Voters League: $9,000 in 2002;
• Baton Rouge Youth Movement: $8,000 in 2011 and 2012;
• Home Builders Association of Central Louisiana: $8,000 in 2010;
• Independent Rx PAC: $3,500 in 2010;
• Shreveport Committee on Political Education: $4,400 in 2006 and 2010;
As a reward for his comments critical of Jindal’s ethics reform package, Simoneaux was not re-nominated to another five-year term on the board—effectively fired—by the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs in April of 2012.
Ethics, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Put another way: those who have the gold are making the rules.