The Louisiana Board of Ethics is struggling in its revised role as defined by a 2008 law, which made significant changes in its duties.
The law, pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, removed the board’s authority to decide whether there have been violations of state conflict of interest, nepotism, campaign finance and other laws.
The judicial function was moved to a newly created Ethics Adjudicatory Board, known as EAB, with the investigatory and prosecutorial functions.
It seemed simple enough, this separation of functions. But not so.
“There’s ambiguity in the law,” said Ethics Board chairman Frank Simoneaux. “It’s full of ambiguities, and that really gives us problems.”
The latest high-profile dispute involves the authority of the Ethics Board in collecting fines for campaign finance law violations.
The Ethics Board had been going to court to force payment of overdue fines.
One of those accused delinquent filers challenged the board’s authority, arguing that the cases needed to go to the EAB.
State District Court Judge William Morvant, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, agreed. So the board started sending cases to the EAB — only to be rebuffed by that body which claimed it had no authority in the area.
The conflict left more than 350 cases in limbo, and the numbers are mounting as the busy 2011 fall election season approaches.
The Ethics Board decided to go to court seeking a declaratory judgment to resolve the issue. That’s still pending.
Simoneaux said there remains an issue surrounding “prescription” — the time limit imposed on the board issuing charges or dropping cases, which its staff is investigating.
“It’s still an open question on a number of things,” he said.
The Ethics Board disagreed with an EAB decision throwing out, as untimely, charges against state Rep. Rick Gallot, the Ruston Democrat who chairs the committee that oversaw Jindal’s ethics legislation in the Louisiana House.
The board sought a review of the EAB decision only to be shot down with nowhere to appeal the law judges’ interpretation of the law.
Ethics Board members disagreed with another EAB decision involving the scope of confidentiality of information. But under existing law, the Ethics Board has no right to appeal to a court questions of law.
Simoneaux said there’s another issue on the horizon in an area no one apparently thought about when the new law was drafted.
It involves the Ethics Board entering into “consent opinions,” which end cases of alleged ethics violations.
In the agreements, individuals being investigated admit they erred and pay whatever penalty is assessed before the Ethics Board issues charges.
“It’s a settlement the board signs and they sign,” said Simoneaux. The opinions say they are an order of the Ethics Board.
“The consent opinions were done when the board had the authority to adjudicate. Today, the board does not have that authority,” Simoneaux said. “The practice has kind of innocently continued … There’s all these consent opinions that could be invalid.”
The Ethics Board voted to get an attorney general’s opinion on the issue.
The Ethics Board has advocated for a Louisiana State Law Institute review of the new law because of the “areas of uncertainty” it has encountered. But so far, attempts to get that review have died in the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions.
Jindal’s big emphasis on ethics has bogged down in ambiguity on top of ambiguity, leaving an Ethics Board crippled by the vagueness.
Marsha Shuler reports on ethics issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.