Earlier this week, we posted our story about growing frustration over the fact that time after time, when official corruption and wrongdoing are exposed, nothing is done.
And it isn’t just the wrongdoing or questionable activities exposed by LouisianaVoice that feeds our exasperation. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a member of the media or a state agency, the fact is the vast majority of the cases are quietly ignored until they go away. Ignored, that is unless it’s some hapless inner city resident caught with a couple of joints or a civil servant fudging her timesheets because her agency’s budget has been cut to the bone, forcing shortcuts on her so she can maintain an overburdened caseload.
In those cases, justice is swift and severe.
But for those in positions of power and influence, it’s quite another story.
Only in Louisiana would a sheriff under federal indictment for beating defenseless prisoners and turning vicious dogs on them and who even threatened a federal prosecutor have the gall to petition the courts to give him his gun back. (Well, perhaps Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio would be so brazen, but we digress.)
Nowhere is Louisiana’s chronic case of legal periodontitis more evident than with the state’s “gold standard of ethics” presented to us way back in 1984. Because of his gutting state ethics laws, the Louisiana Ethics Commissions by all appearances is unable to collect more than $1 million in fines and penalties it has assessed against 248 political candidates. These candidates run the gamut—from sheriffs to current and former legislators and a member of the Board of Elementary and secondary Education.
Thank you, Bobby Jindal.
Jindal’s ethics reform was of such a high “gold standard” that it removed all enforcement powers of the Ethics Board and handed those duties to an administrative judge appointed by the governor—in this case, Jindal. The reform had the effect of making ethics enforcement just another political animal controlled by the governor in the same fashion as the Office of Inspector General, neither of which now have any real powers.
Ten of the 11 Ethics Board members immediately resigned in protest.
Perhaps it was only coincidence, but just 10 days after taking office—and before Jindal introduced his ethics reform bill—he was himself hit with a $2,500 ethics fine after failing to report that the Republican Party of Louisiana spent $118,265 on direct mail to promote his successful 2007 candidacy.
Jindal spokesperson at the time, Melissa Sellers, said Jindal would pay the fine to avoid a public hearing. The only trouble was, she said his campaign would pay the fine, an ethics violation in itself. Ethics Commission regulations prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, including ethics fines.
Political consultant Elliott Stonecipher of Shreveport remembers the backroom dealings in drafting the ethics reform of 2008. “By way of my pro bono consulting for the old Ethics Board, I knew details of what House Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Terrytown), Rep. (later Senator) Rick Gallot (D-Ruston), Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), Jindal’s Executive Counsel Jimmy Faircloth, Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell, and Ann Wise were concocting,” he would later write.
The new laws bestowed upon Wise, an unclassified employee serving at the pleasure of the governor, the responsibility of selecting administrative law judges who would hear and rule on future ethics cases. “She was, in fact, working with Tucker, Gallot, Kostelka, and one Jindal insider identified her as one of the first people Tucker brought aboard their operation,” Stonecipher said. “At the time all of this was going on, Bobby refused to meet with Hank Perret, Chairman of the Ethics Board, with whom I was working. Under pressure, Jindal finally agreed to a half-hour meeting but would not meet without Teepell there and (Jindal) ultimately used the thirty minutes to command the discussion—never allowing it to approach what Hank was there to tell him,” he said.
“The top players and designers (Tucker, Gallot, and Kostelka) had (at the time discussions were ongoing) active and serious ethics charges against them winding through the system,” Stonecipher said (emphasis added). “Tucker had two charges and Gallot had seven. When the smoke cleared after the new laws took effect, each of them beat the rap in all cases.” Stonecipher said the top political reporters in Louisiana were informed all those details. “None of them ever wrote a story,” he said. “My articles which went to them were never acknowledged.”
So Gallot, Chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and a key Jindal ally in pushing for changes in the state’s ethics laws, was the subject of seven conflict-of-interest charges involving his legal representation of a company in business dealings with Grambling State University and the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors on which his mother was simultaneously serving.
Ethics Board Chairman at that time Frank Simoneaux of Baton Rouge (he was not re-appointed by Jindal when his term expired) called the Gallot case the first real test of state ethics laws since the Jindal reforms went into effect.
Another case pending at the time was that of Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre. He was charged with a conflict of interest because he was part-owner of Smart Start of Louisiana. He was accused of using his office for financial gain by selling ignition interlock devices to drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated.
It’s interesting to note that neither Webre nor Gallot denied the facts laid out in the charges. Instead, each invoking a statute of limitations in claiming that the board had only one year to file the charges while ethics board attorneys said the time limit for prescription was two years.
In November 2009, a panel of three administrative judges dismissed the charges against Webre.
So, to recap:
- Jindal’s campaign paid his fine for him.
- Webre was exonerated.
- Kostelka, Tucker and Gallot all “beat the rap.”
Tucker was chosen Speaker of the House during Jindal’s first term.
Well, he went on to be elected to the State Senate and on Tuesday (July 26), he was unanimously chosen by the University of Louisiana System as the new President of Grambling State University. To be fair, though, at least his mother no longer sits on the board.
Gallot even found the time to write an op-ed in the Baton Rouge Advocate in which he addressed his close relationship to the state’s movers and shakers and outlined his plans for Grambling. Oddly, he never got around to discussing ethics in his column.
For now, Louisiana appears to be stuck with a real albatross: A State Ethics Board that is powerless to collect more than $1 million ethics fines from those 248 candidates, some of them dating as far back as 25 years. The amount represents an average fine of $4,252 per candidate, though of that 248, there were 20 who had fines in excess of $10,000. Of that 20, six had fines of $20,000 or more; four were on the books for $30,000 or more and one was for $41,440.
Of the $1,054,487 in fines assess since 1991, only $57,665, or a scant 5 percent, has been paid, records show.
Court records show that in the majority of cases, fines assessed prior to 2015 that have gone unpaid have resulted in the filing of lawsuits by the Board of Ethics and in many of those cases, judgments against the individuals have resulted.
To be fair, the recipient of that $41,440 levy, James Fahrenholtz, has paid nearly half ($19,342) of his fine. That’s not to say Fahrenholtz, a former member of the Orleans Parish School Board doesn’t have other problems. In an unrelated matter, he was arrested in April 2015 for theft of a lobbyist’s iPad tablet.
Besides Fahrenyholtz, those owing $10,000 or more include:
- Donald Pryor, former candidate for Orleans Parish Registrar (paid $1,757 to date);
- Albert Donovan, former legal counsel to Gov. Edwin Edwards and a candidate for Secretary of State: $31,000 (paid $5,453 so far);
- Gary Wainright, former candidate for Orleans Parish District Attorney: $30,200 (paid nothing on assessment);
- Percy Marchand, former candidate for State Representative: $26,660 (paid nothing to date);
- Thomas Robichaux, candidate for Orleans Parish School Board: $20,060 (paid $800);
- James Perry, candidate for State Representative: $18,060 (paid nothing);
- Edward Scott, candidate for U.S. Representative: $17,380 (paid nothing);
- Robert Murray, candidate for State Representative: $17,080 (paid $160);
- Jason Wesley, candidate for East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council: $16,000 (paid nothing);
- Isaiah Marshall, candidate for East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council; $14,600 (paid $1,240);
- Patrick Tovrea, candidate for Jefferson Parish School Board: $14,220 (paid nothing);
- Joel Miller, candidate for Washington Parish Sheriff: $12,360 (paid nothing);
- Melva Vallery, office unknown: $12,000 (paid nothing);
- Marvin Frazier, candidate for Sabine Parish Sheriff: $11,800 (paid $4,031);
- Myron Lee, candidate for State Representative: $10,900 (paid nothing);
- Sandra Hester, candidate for Orleans Parish School Board: $10,660 (paid nothing);
- Remic Darden, office unknown: $10,600 (paid $350);
- Thelma Brown, candidate for East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council: $10,000 (paid nothing);
- Ali Moghimi, candidate for Monroe Mayor: $10,000 (paid nothing).
Other notable personalities hit with ethics fines and the amounts paid on their fine include:
- State Rep. John Bagneris: $4,680 (nothing paid);
- Livingston Parish Council Chairman Ricky Goff: $1,760 (nothing paid);
- State Rep. Michael Jackson: $2,000 (nothing paid);
- Former U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister: $1,260 (nothing paid);
- Former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Ernest Wooton: $2,000 (nothing paid);
- Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Kyra Orange Jones: $2,500 (nothing paid).
Here is a complete list of UNPAID fines assessed by the Board of Ethics
In January, the Ethics Board staff drafted an opinion on former Commission of Administration Kristy Nichols and her job as a lobbyist for Ochsner Health System which typically, was not adopted by the full board.
That opinion said state law would prohibit Nichols from advising Ochsner on any matter involving the Division of Administration (DOA) until October 2017. It also said she could not deal with legislators who handle the state budget (and that should include all 105 representatives and 39 senators because they all must vote on the state budget.
Rather than making a definitive decision, which was—and is—its responsibility, the Louisiana Board of Ethics boldly postponed action—at the request of Ochsner—until February.
Well, February has come and gone and the Ethics Board has yet to post anything online and we are now back to our original lament: Nothing gets done.