It’s gotten harder to force delinquent campaign finance report filers to pay up.
A dispute over steps required to levy and enforce collection of fines is stymieing Louisiana Board of Ethics’ efforts in more than 350 cases, according to agency officials.
And the chairman of the Ethics Board is blaming the “quagmire” that has developed on a 2008 law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The law left the Ethics Board with investigatory and prosecutorial functions, but transferred the judicial function to the newly created Ethics Adjudicatory Board.
How that change affected campaign finance law enforcement is now at issue.
The Ethics Board is caught between a state district judge’s ruling and a contradictory EAB decision on what it takes to enforce payment of fines.
The EAB recently turned down hearings in 15 campaign finance cases, citing lack of jurisdiction.
“Where do we turn to now if you are the Board of Ethics?” Frank Simoneaux, board chairman, asked. “The court says you don’t have the adjudicatory authority. The EAB now says it doesn’t have jurisdiction.”
Simoneaux said the 2008 state law that transferred judicial authority to the EAB is “so unclear” that it has led to enforcement problems.
“It’s another example of just how convoluted the statute is,” Simoneaux said.
Jindal’s executive counsel, Stephen Waguespack, said the administration believes that the Ethics Board has the authority to enforce the campaign finance law.
Waguepack said that authority comes in another law under which it becomes the Supervisory Committee on Campaign Finance Disclosure.
“I think they already have the authority. If they want to talk about changing the law to re-enforce that in the next session, we are definitely open to them,” Waguespack said.
Waguespack said the Ethics Board could go to court and seek a declaratory judgment on the issue to clear it up.
Kathleen Allen, chief ethics administrator, said the Ethics Board will discuss the next step it should take at its July meeting. In the meantime, campaign finance law fine enforcement is at a standstill, she said.
District Court Judge William Morvant ruled in November that the adjudicatory panel has jurisdiction in cases requiring a public hearing to institute collection of the fines.
In a newly released decision, affecting 15 pending cases, the EAB disagreed. It concluded that the EAB does not have jurisdiction unless the candidate formally appeals the ethics agency’s order to pay up. The panel argued that the Ethics Board can go straight to court absent an appeal.
“If such an order is not appealed, it becomes a valid final order of the BOE without a hearing, and is enforceable in the judicial district court,” a panel of three administrative law judges wrote.
Before Morvant’s ruling, the Ethics Board conducted hearings before seeking judgments in the 19th Judicial District Court to pursue payment.
After the judge’s finding, the board started referring cases it had been hearing to the EAB.
Until the issue is resolved, Allen said, the Ethics Board’s efforts to seek legal judgments through the 19th JDC would be at an impasse.
Allen noted that the conflict arises as the 2011 fall election season approaches and when the ethics agency will be policing compliance with campaign finance reporting laws.
Morvant’s ruling came in a case involving Shawn Barney, an unsuccessful candidate for a New Orleans state Senate seat.
Gray Sexton, Barney’s attorney, argued that whether his client violated the filing requirement of the campaign finance disclosure act should not be heard by the Ethics Board.
Alesia Ardoin, Ethics Board lawyer, countered that reports are either filed or not filed, and the hearing to enforce fines were part of the board’s ministerial function in policing campaign finance laws.
After Morvant’s ruling, the board decided not to appeal and started sending cases to the EAB when violators did not pay fines by established deadlines.
In its recent decision, the EAB panel wrote: “The BOE’s interpretation that the EAB is required to conduct a hearing, whether or not a Respondent appeals, renders the appeal provision … meaningless or superfluous.”
The EAB panel said the Ethics Board can go directly to the 19th JDC to enforce “any valid order … and an order for the payment of late filing fees is a valid final order.”
“We also conclude it is enforceable in the district court,” the law judges wrote.