The Advocate article on May 16, “Why the ‘most egregious’ ethics case in Louisiana remains open nine years later,” identifies an unfortunate lapse in ethics enforcement in Louisiana. The article brings to light a flailing attempt to prosecute charges against a former state senator that has turned into a nine-year-old case lingering in the courts with no resolution in sight. The public’s confidence is shaken by such an inconclusive process.
However, the article erroneously attributes this delay to the ethics reforms of 2008 and never explains the actual causes. The real reasons are clever maneuvering and diversionary court shopping by the senator and his attorneys within the state court system, including challenges as to whether the ethics board has jurisdiction in this case. The article blames the ethics adjudicatory process set up in 2008. But in this case, the state court intervened to prevent that ethics adjudicatory process from moving forward. As embarrassing as this drawn-out case has become, it was not caused by the 2008 ethics reforms.
Also, the article misleads readers to think that the state ethics board has drastically reduced the number of substantive ethics charges over the past five years, whereas the spike in 2013 and subsequent decline in numbers reflect the fact that the ethics board temporarily counted late filing fees as “ethics charges.” The number of ethics charges has not changed dramatically on an apples-to-apples basis.
The 2008 reforms marked a sea change in transparency with regard to personal financial disclosures and contracting relationships of state and local officials, legislators and commissioners across Louisiana. For the first time, wining and dining for influence had an expense limit. Lobbying activity was more tightly reported. High state officials fell under new conflicts-of-interest restrictions. The state senator’s dilatory ethics case had nothing to do with any of these beneficial reforms.
In 2012, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana worked with Gov. Jindal’s office and legislators to fix key procedural problems in the new ethics system. We suggest more improvements. But we support the overall important step forward that Louisiana took with these 2008 sunshine and accountability laws. It’s great that The Advocate wants to find leaks in the roof, but don’t burn the house down to fix them.
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT
president, Public Affairs Research Council