The Louisiana Board of Ethics delayed releasing a decision Friday that could have implications for a revolving-door phenomenon that’s already common in state politics.
State Rep. Nancy Landry asked the board whether she could become the clerk for the state House of Representatives immediately after her term expires in 2020, which is also when longtime House clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer is set to retire. Landry’s request Friday at an Ethics Board meeting raised questions about state ethics provisions that are meant to prevent elected officials and other state employees from cycling in and out of jobs in the state Capitol.
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The Code of Ethics says that agency heads, elected officials and public employees must wait at least two years after they leave a job before they can work for or lobby the entity that employed them. But legislators routinely find ways to work around those laws. Some become “consultants” and “governmental affairs advisers” rather than lobbyists, for example..
Landry’s attorneys argued before the board Friday that she should be allowed to work for the same legislative body she’s served in for multiple terms. They said her case differed from what the Code of Ethics was designed to prevent, because she is seeking an elected rather than an appointive position. Attorneys for the Ethics Board agreed with them in one aspect: they said the board has never before considered a case quite like Landry’s.
The Advocate and ProPublica recently tracked the 99 former legislators who left office between 2010 and late 2018 to gauge the influence of former lawmakers in the Capitol. The news outlets’ analysis found that 35 ex-legislators had gone on to jobs as lobbyists, consultants, governmental affairs representatives, state government employees or state board members -- roles in which they often have continued to influence the Legislature.
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Term limits will kick in at the end of this year for dozens of current legislators, some of whom will be looking for new jobs connected to state politics once they leave. Speer’s impending retirement has set off a behind-the-scenes power struggle among legislators about who could replace him. He has been the House of Representatives’ clerk since 1984.
Landry told the Ethics Board that the delay in knowing whether she’s allowed to hold the job has cut into the time she might have otherwise spent trying to convince 53 members of the House of Representatives to support her.
“I haven’t been able to talk to people about my qualifications for the job, because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it,” the Lafayette Republican told the board.
Two definitions were key parts of the debate on Friday.
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State representatives vote to appoint the House clerk, but board members disagreed about whether that makes the clerk an elected official or merely an employee of the House.
The other major question was whether the Legislature is considered a “board or commission.” The Code of Ethics specifies that members of boards and commissions must wait two years before they work for boards or commissions where they once served.
Landry’s attorneys argued that the state representative is simply seeking another elected office, and that the legislature does not count as a board or commission.
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Gray Sexton, one of Landry’s attorneys, warned that if the Ethics Board determined the Legislature was a “board or commission,” the interpretation would turn the Code of Ethics “on its head.” Sexton, a past administrator for the Board of Ethics who now often defends clients against ethics charges, said unintended consequences would result.
“To suggest that the Legislature is a board or commission is not an intuitive interpretation of the ethics code,” Sexton added.
But Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen said other Ethics Code provisions for legislators would prevent such unintended consequences. She said a body does not need to have the words board or commission in its title to be considered one, as aldermen and city councils fall under the definition as well.
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Though the public debate centered on Landry’s request, another request from state Rep. Steve Pugh that came up at the meeting carried similar implications. Pugh asked the Ethics Board’s guidance on whether he could become the Capitol Foundation Coordinator — another role in which he would work for the House of Representatives — immediately after his term ends.
Ethics Board members said their answer to Landry would serve as guidance on the request from the Ponchatoula Republican.
After discussing Landry’s request for about an hour in a private, executive session, the Board of Ethics returned with no announcement of a decision. Board members said they will render one next month.