State Ethics Board looking into former Jindal budget official’s new lobbying job with Ochsner Health System _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Kristy Nichols, as Commissioner of Administration, testified before the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year about the state's budget. As commissioner, Nichols had influence over a great many transactions across state government. The Board of Ethics has been asked what she can and can't do in her new job, which involves lobbying state government officials.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics is looking at how involved Kristy Nichols, who as the former commissioner of administration held one of the largest jobs in state government, can become in her new job as a lobbyist for the Ochsner Health System.

“This is not required. I just did it out of an abundance of caution,” David Gaines said Monday. As Ochsner’s senior vice president for public affairs, Gaines is Nichols’ new boss, and he sought the Ethics Board’s opinion on what work Nichols could do as vice president of government and corporate affairs.

“I wanted to see clarity on what the scope of her work could be and what her scope of work could not be,” he said.

Interestingly, the official request for an Ethics Board opinion was made Nov. 5 by Kimberly Robinson, who is leaving the Jones Walker law firm to become secretary of revenue when Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is sworn in on Jan. 11.

Jones Walker is Ochsner’s longtime legal counsel. Robinson said she has pulled herself from legal work after announcing Dec. 7 the new post with the Edwards administration.

“With the announcement of my new position, they have new counsel and I’m transitioning out of all of my current matters,” Robinson said.

Ochsner hired R. Gray Sexton, a former Ethics Board administrator from Baton Rouge, to handle the request about Nichols. He did not return a call Monday.

The commissioner of administration, as head of the Division of Administration, oversees government spending and is the governor’s chief budget architect.

Nichols was the Jindal administration’s commissioner from October 2012 to Oct. 14, when she left to join Ochsner. As commissioner, her duties touched on many aspects of state government. For instance, Gov. Bobby Jindal contracted with private groups to operate the state-run charity hospitals.

Nichols was involved in the negotiations of those contracts, called cooperative endeavor agreements.

The charity hospital in Houma, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center, is operated in partnership with Hospital Service District No. 1 of Terrebonne Parish and the Southern Regional Medical Corp. Ochsner has an agreement with Terrebonne to operate Chabert Medical Center, but it is not a party to the contract the state has with the hospital district.

The request asked for guidance on what dealings Nichols could have with the state Department of Health and Hospitals and with LSU, which oversees Louisiana’s charity hospital system.

Generally, state law prohibits a former agency head from assisting anyone with transactions with her former agency for two years.

A proposed opinion drafted by the board’s staff — but not adopted by the board — says state law would prohibit Nichols from advising Ochsner on any matter involving the Division of Administration until October 2017. She also couldn’t deal with legislators who handle the state budget.

The opinion says that the prohibition also could extend to transactions not directly involving the Division of Administration because that office oversees general management of state government. But on several points, the draft opinion says more information would be needed.

Ethics Board Administrator Kathleen Allen said the Ethics Board did not even discuss the opinion the staffers had drafted.

Instead, the board accepted Ochsner’s request to postpone action. Ochsner has until Jan. 7 to make a new submission, if the company wants the matter to be considered in February.

Gaines said Sexton, Ochsner’s new lawyer, wanted to take a closer look at the questions asked and seek a declaratory opinion, rather than an advisory opinion. A declaratory opinion can be appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

Gaines said Nichols’ future with Ochsner doesn’t depend on the outcome of the Ethics Board decision.

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