The Louisiana Legislature will likely soon be asked to tweak the state's ethics laws, which were called a "gold standard" when approved a decade ago.
A little-known group led by the state Ethics Administration Board has spent several weeks toiling away over ethics laws and possible changes that they hope to recommend to lawmakers.
But from initial discussions at the board's three most recent meetings, an overarching theme appears to be more about addressing the ease of ethics reporting — and not necessarily tightening requirements.
Most of the discussions have been about whether current reporting requirements are appropriate and whether agency heads should shoulder more responsibility in ethics decisions, rather than whether further restrictions should be applied to the perks that state officials may receive. Little mention has been made of a national report from two years ago that identified Louisiana as having some of the loosest anti-corruption measures in the country.
"What we have right now, if somebody wants to abuse it and they can find enough people to sponsor them to go on all these trips, it can probably be done within the confines of what we have," Rep. Gregory Miller, a Norco Republican and one of two state legislators on the panel, said during the review board's meeting this month. "I don't think we are going to be opening any door (to abuse), as long as we have disclosures and some gatekeeper functions from the agency heads on this."
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Peppi Bruneau, Louisiana Board of Ethics member who chairs the new advisory panel, said he thinks the law could be more specific so the rules are clearer.
"Over the last number of years, we've had any number of issues come before (the Ethics Board), and some of us felt maybe ... some of the present provisions in the laws administered by the Ethics Board could use some tweaking," he said, explaining the board's goal at a recent meeting.
They have a loose list of things to consider: sponsored travel, financial disclosure requirements and rules about accepting gifts, among them. But Bruneau said any ethics-related issue could be discussed among the panel — formed at the Ethics Board's direction with the goal of making recommendations to the Legislature ahead of its next regular session, which begins in March.
With forceful prodding from then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Legislature in 2008 overhauled the state's ethics laws, billed by Jindal and his supporters as the "gold standard." Critics have long contended the legislation contained loopholes that made the effort less effective than it had been billed as.
The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2014, gave Louisiana an F in its "State Integrity Investigation" in 2015, grading the state among the worst for transparency, accountability and ethics enforcement.
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Louisiana ranked 41st out of 50 states in CPI's assessment, which is the most recent national analysis of state ethics laws.
Recent discussions among the ethics advisory panel have included restrictions on travel paid for by third parties and whether there should be more allowed. A review by The Advocate of disclosure documents earlier this year found state lawmakers had accepted complimentary hotel stays, travel and conference admissions valued at more than $73,000 combined between January 2016 and July 2017. The trips, which do not face the same caps that limit gifts from lobbyists, are reflected in signed affidavits that lawmakers must file with the state Board of Ethics.
"I want an employee or public official to be able to look at this and not have to get a Baton Rouge attorney or the Ethics Board to give an opinion every time you want to go from Baton Rouge to Chackbay," Bruneau said.
Overwhelmingly, the panel appeared to agree that transparency — continuing to require the reports — is the best deterrent to abuse.
Those files are posted onto the Ethics Administration's website in a broader financial disclosure database and are often submitted as handwritten documents that are then scanned, rather than being collected in an easily researched "open data" format.
But, the advisory panel has also questioned whether some officials with smaller jurisdictions, including smaller towns, should be exempted from filing the disclosures they are required to file now.
The advisory panel hasn't released any formal recommendations to date but is expected to meet again in December to discuss potential proposals.