When New Orleans City Councilman Jay H. Banks was accused last week of hiding his past work with Entergy New Orleans and with a firm that helps the City Council regulate that utility, he insisted he has always been transparent about his résumé.
But Banks in fact failed to list at least one of those jobs on the financial disclosures he was legally required to submit to the state each year, a review shows.
The forms require public officials to account for their sources of income so that the public is fully aware of potential conflicts of interest.
In 2016 and 2017, Banks listed his main job with the Dryades YMCA but failed to note his work in those years for Legend Consulting Group, a Denver-based firm that advises the council on technical aspects of utility regulation.
Banks said this week that the misstep was not intentional. "If that information was required to be disclosed, it was an oversight," he said. "This is simply an error."
One local expert said such omissions are all too common in a system that is meant to encourage accountability but still has significant loopholes and little oversight.
“The system is sort of self-policing," said lawyer Stephen Gelé, who mentors budding politicos on the ins and outs of campaign finance law at Loyola University's Institute of Politics.
While the state Ethics Board collects and publicly posts the forms officials submit, it does little to ensure they're filled out accurately.
"Anything as far as an inaccuracy, that's not something we would just know based on the face of the report," said Kathleen Allen, the board's administrator, adding that she has one compliance investigator to monitor 17,000 reports.
To the extent such things are checked at all, potential inaccuracies or missing information tend to be "policed by the press, other interest groups and by political opponents, who bring issues to public attention or file a complaint," Gelé noted — in short, what happened to Banks last week.
Some of Banks' critics claimed that his omission of past work has affected his credibility in discussions about whether the council should let Entergy's plans for building a $210 million power plant in New Orleans East move forward.
Banks disagrees, pointing out that his most recent work was with a consultant that helps the council regulate Entergy, not with Entergy itself — meaning his role was similar to that he now plays on the council, he said.
As a member of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, Banks was required to file a "Tier 2.1" financial disclosure form for almost every year of his tenure, which began in 2008 and ended just before he took a seat on the City Council in 2018.
And each year, Banks and his wife, Artelia Bennett Banks, listed their respective jobs at the Dryades YMCA and the state Department of Children and Family Services. Missing, however, was Jay Banks' lobbying gig for Legend Consulting Group, one of the firms that has long been paid by the council to help regulate Entergy. He worked for it from at least 2016 to June 30, 2017.
The forms on the Ethics Board website also don't include work Banks did for Entergy itself, although Banks said he worked for the utility from 2005 to 2008. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the state law requiring such disclosures in March 2008, but it didn't go into effect until the following year, meaning Banks' work for Entergy likely fell outside the disclosure window.
While the Ethics Board has few resources to verify information submitted on the forms, the board does penalize officials for failing to turn them in on time, or if there is something obviously amiss during a surface-level check of the report, Allen said — such as if an official says that they work for City Hall but doesn't say how much they earn. The board does levy fines when staffers discover missing information and officials don't take steps to correct the record, or when forms are otherwise turned in late.
People are given a week to fix the problem before fines begin to accrue. Fines range from $50 a day with a $1,500 maximum to $500 a day with a $12,500 maximum, depending on the capacity in which that individual serves.
That system has nearly penalized Banks at least once before. After he filed his 2015 disclosure form 27 days late, the board was poised to fine him $1,350, board minutes show. But the board suspended the fine conditioned upon his future compliance with state ethics laws, and because it was his first late filing.
It was unclear when or if the latest issue with Banks' disclosure would trigger that fine, or potentially a new one.
Robert Travis Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonpartisan government watchdog group who tracks state lawmakers' various forms of compensation, emphasized the limited resources of the Ethics Board when discussing Banks' situation.
"It's one of those where you wonder: 'If somebody is not writing down something, how does it eventually come to light?' We would have to hire a whole lot more people in the Ethics Board to go through and check every single one of those expenditures," he said.
And Gelé, the campaign finance expert, said the board frequently relies on the media and other complainants to call attention to omitted data.
That's what happened last week, when Monique Harden, of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, accused Banks of hiding his past work. She leveled the charge during the council Utility Committee's deliberations on Entergy's plans for a new power plant. The full council is expected to decide Thursday whether to let it move forward.
"There is a credibility issue, because you haven't disclosed your relationship and your position on this," Harden told Banks.
Banks protested, saying he had never tried to hide his work for Legend. When the consulting firm sought a contract renewal from the council in 2016, it included Banks' name and résumé as part of its bid.
"Ma’am, I’ve never met you to tell you anything," Banks told Harden. "I don’t know you from a can of paint."
Banks added that he had done work for both Legend and Entergy because he was "good at what I do, just like Shaquille O'Neal."