In the clunky jargon of public ethics, “financial disclosure” and “transparency” always figure prominently.
At New Orleans’ Ethics Review Board, however, familiarity with such concepts appears to have bred contempt. Its members do not think the rules apply to them.
An unethical ethics board is quite a hoot.
David Marcello, director of Tulane’s Public Law Center, has published a report on the board, which finds it falls short of the standards it is supposed to foster in other government agencies. It routinely goes into executive session, for instance, without citing an exemption to the sunshine laws that would entitle it to do so.
Its agendas will announce an executive session to discuss “prospective litigation” but fail to name the parties and indicate the nature of the dispute, as the law requires. The board also declines to give notice, and provide an opportunity for public comment, before adopting or revising rules, Marcello found.
As for financial disclosure, there was a time when board members were told they were not required to file reports, because they had limited control of their budget. In 2008, the state Ethics Board ruled that disclosure was not necessary because all expenditures of more than $10,000 had to be approved by the city’s chief administrative officer.
Since then, however, the board has more than once appropriated much more than $10,000 for ethics training courses, so the rationale for the state ruling, Marcello avers, no longer applies. Regardless, there is an obvious case for our ethics arbiters to act on a higher principle and disdain any loopholes that might enable them to keep their income sources in the dark. Howard Rodgers gets a shoutout from Marcello as the only board member to have filed a report. This might all be of greater concern if the board were playing a vigorous role in local government, but in recent years, to Marcello’s distress, it had abandoned any enforcement role to concentrate on ethics training. The board concluded that it lacked the authority to impose fines off its own bat and was required to forward complaints to the state.
That, according to Marcello, was a mistake. The board, thanks to powers granted under the city’s Home Rule Charter, was not obliged to defer to the state.
Steve Scheckman, who was attorney to the board at the time, still says he was right to advise against playing ethics cop. State law takes precedence, according to Scheckman.
We must leave the legal niceties to the pros, but the board could never be a serious scourge of errant municipal officials without a bunch more money anyway. Its current budget is about $200,000 a year. Besides, a government watchdog that needs the CAO’s approval for major expenditures always will be toothless. For the board to adopt an enforcement role without the necessary independence could be a major waste of time.
The board has no intention of doing that, preferring to regard itself as responsible for training. Perhaps this is a worthy cause, although workplace training courses must largely consist of stating the obvious. Ethical violations may arise from a failure to understand simple rules, but most people are probably not that dumb. When the rules are flouted, it is generally not through ignorance.
Besides, the Louisiana Municipal Association publishes a handbook that will tell all officials, and their minions, all they could wish to know about their responsibilities under the ethics code. An Ethics Review Board that does no more than lay on training courses might be regarded as pretty much surplus to requirements.
The board has, however, achieved one glittering success, for it is charged with appointing the city’s inspector general. Marcello now joins the acclaim for Ed Quatrevaux, who got the job in 2009 and has been buzzing around spotlighting malefactors in every corner of municipal government ever since.
Well, not quite every corner. He has been silent on the matter of financial disclosure and transparency at the Ethics Review Board, but there has to be a limit even on his reach.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.