01/08 - Ethics Reform in Louisiana

Can a new governor bring about the changes necessary?

Louisiana may not be the least ethical state in the Union, but it might as well be. Many people -- including high level decision-makers in business and government -- believe that Louisiana is ethically challenged. Twelve years without a major scandal at the state level haven't been enough to erase the stigma of past misdeeds.

Panelists:

* Bill Barrow, Journalist, New Orleans Times Picayune
* Rep. Donald J. Cazayoux, Jr. (D) New Roads
* Kirby Goidel, Head of the LSU Office of Public Policy Research
* Rabbi Barry Weinstein, a member of the LA Ethics 1 coalition for ethics reform

Backgrounder

"The primary goal of governmental ethics laws is to promote confidence in the integrity of government by deterring public officials from using public positions for personal gain."

~"Governmental Ethics Laws in Louisiana: Public Trust or Private Gain?"
Report by the Bureau of Governmental Research and the Public Affairs Research Council (1995)

Louisiana was an early leader in passing ethic laws, but lagged behind other states in implementing ethics oversight. At least 22 other states had ethics boards in place by the time Louisiana's legislature funded a program for ethics administration in 1981.

Louisiana Ethics Code Timeline

1964: Louisiana passed its first ethics code. No funding was provided for administration of the law.

1974: New Constitution mandated Legislature to enact code of ethics for all officials and employees of the state and its political subdivisions; required creation of code that specifically prohibited legislators from realizing personal gain by use of their public office.

1979: Current Ethics Code was adopted with no funding.

1981: Funds provided for implementation of Ethics Code.

1997: Louisiana Board of Ethics was established, replacing an existing commission. The Louisiana Board of Ethics also acts as the Supervisory Committee on Campaign Finance Disclosure. These two entities make up the state Ethics Administration Program.

Louisiana's Ethics Code covers all state and local elected officials, all appointed members of state and local boards and commissions, state and local government employees, and contract companies and individuals that provide governmental services. Judges are excluded from the Ethics Code. They are covered by the Code of Judicial Procedure, which is enforced by the state Supreme Court.

The Ethics Code addresses areas of possible conflicts between the public duties and private interests of public servants (defined as public employees, appointed board and commission members, and all elected officials in state and local government (except judges)). Activities that may result in such conflicts are prohibited. Violations may result in civil penalties, as well as firing public employees or censuring elected officials.

Campaign finance reforms were passed in 1980 and executive branch lobbying restrictions were added in 2004. Louisiana, generally, gets high marks for the amount of financial transparency required of the executive branch. Louisiana is ranked third-best in the nation for the level of disclosure required of governors and governor's candidates, according to The Center for Public Integrity. However, Louisiana is one of just five states that do not require other officials elected statewide to file personal disclosure statements.

Most legislators and other elected officials do not have to report any personal financial information at all. They are only required to confirm that they have filed federal and state income tax returns for the previous year. Louisiana legislators are required to file annual financial reports only if they or their spouse receive income from state and local governments or gambling interests.

All but nine states require some financial disclosure by nonelected executive branch appointees that run regulatory agencies and departments. Louisiana is the only state in the South that does not have this level of financial transparency.

The Ethics Code prohibits a public servant from:

* Being paid by anyone other than the government for doing his governmental job
* Directing government business to a firm for pay
* Being paid to represent anyone before his agency
* Providing private services to persons or businesses regulated by his agency, or who have or want to have a business relationship with his agency
* Voting or talking any official action that will affect his financial interests, or those of his immediate family members or a business in which any of the foregoing persons are involved [1]
* Entering into a contract or business transaction with his agency or one which his agency has supervision or jurisdiction
* Soliciting or accepting anything of value [other than meals] from persons with whom he has official dealings
* Using his official position to acquire personal benefits for himself or anyone else
* Soliciting or accepting pay for aiding in the passage or defeat of legislation affecting his agency
* Hiring, promoting, supervising or otherwise participating in the employment of immediate family members
* Assisting others with matters in which he participated as a public employee for two years following termination of public employment

Over the years, exceptions to the Code of Ethics passed by the legislature have weakened it, according to many observers. Former Ethics Board member T.O. Perry says, "One of our serious problems is all the exceptions that we have to the present Code. & [It] has had literally over a hundred or more exceptions made to it."

Louisiana's ethics and campaign finance laws are overseen by the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which also acts as the Supervisory Committee on Campaign Finance Disclosure. The Board and the Committee comprise the Ethics Administration Program. Seven of the eleven members of the Board are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The Senate and the House each provide two members.

The functions of the Ethics Administration Program are:

* Oversee and enforce Louisiana's ethics and campaign finance laws
* Receive, review and - at its discretion - investigate complaints alleging ethics and campaign finance violations
* Fine or censure guilty legislators, elected or appointed officials, state workers or others
* Counsel and advise legislators, elected and appointed officials and others on ethics and campaign finance laws
* Collect review and publish campaign finance reports
* Educate legislators and others about ethics and campaign finance matters

The Ethics Administration Program has about two dozen staffers. Its rules and budget of $1.9 million are overseen by the Senate and House governmental affairs committees.

"I don't know which is worse, that everyone has his price, or that the price is always so low."

~ Hobbes [The tiger character from Calvin and Hobbes comic strip created by Bill Watterson]

Corruption in government is neither new nor confined to Louisiana. But political scandals here, for various reasons, have sometimes been bigger-than-life, producing national headlines and a seemingly indelible image of governmental graft, dishonesty and sleaze.

At the state-level, Louisiana has been relatively scandal-free for most of the past 12 years. Nevertheless, a long list of convicted elected officials, including three insurance commissioners, an attorney general and former governor Edwin Edwards, serves as a reminder of major lapses in ethical behavior by Louisiana politicians.

The Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal [2] in Washington, DC has been cited by some as a starting point for increased public disgust with politics and declining trust in government. In the past two years, 47 states have introduced bills or passed legislation revising ethics laws, according the Center for Ethics in Government. At least seven states have approved major overhauls.

Long-standing good government groups such as the Council for A Better Louisiana [CABL] and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana [PAR] have been joined recently by newcomers Blueprint Louisiana and LA Ethics 1 in efforts to overhaul Louisiana's ethics laws. The fact that some of PARs recommendations are the same ones it has been making for over a decade is an indication of the difficulties ethics reformers face in Louisiana.

These groups often cite national surveys and reports which rank Louisiana near the bottom, or give it failing grades. The Better Government Association's 2002 Integrity Report [the most recent available] placed Louisiana in the bottom five among the states, at 46th in the nation. The Center for Public Integrity's 2004 survey ranked Louisiana 44th on their Financial Disclosure Report Card for legislators. When it comes to ethics reform, the lack of financial disclosure, particularly for legislators and state officials, is one of the most frequently mentioned problem areas.

Louisiana also got an "F" from the Center for Public Integrity in the area of Lobbyist Spending Disclosure [2003]. State law requires lobbyists to report what they spend on entertaining legislators, which can include meals, drinks and tickets to sporting and other events.

In its wrap-up report on the 2007 session, PAR blasted the legislature's failure to act decisively ethics."& at a time when the nation has been scrutinizing Louisiana's rebuilding efforts, this was the Legislature's chance to make a lasting difference. Instead, it was business as usual - with time wasted and sly attempts to circumvent the spirit of the ethics code and sunshine laws."

Governor Bobby Jindal made ethics reform a major campaign issue and is calling a special session of the legislature in February to address revising the state's Ethics Code. Jindal and others believe such changes will be key to making Louisiana more attractive to outside companies and investors. Jindal's web site and that of LA Ethics 1 both cite a recent LSU survey [3], which found that Louisiana's reputation for political corruption is a top factor business leaders take into account in deciding where to invest.

There are many roads to achieving the goal of better governmental ethics in Louisiana. Carl Redman, Executive Editor of The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, worries that too much emphasis will be placed in creating new constraints on bad behavior. "I don't think that restricting people's behavior is going to go very far." He says, "We've seen, over the years, that you pass a lot of laws and people break them. What you really need to concentrate on is: who is going to be affected by the Ethics Code? Who is going to answer to it?" Redman says that it all comes down to disclosure. "If people disclose their interests, and if people know what those interests are, then the sunshine has a remarkable sanitizing effect."

Whatever routes Louisiana takes toward ethics reform, many observers agree that there has never been - and may never again be - a more promising time for action than now.

For additional information on ethics reform in Louisiana, check out the web sites listed below.

CABL has proposed a series of four ethics reforms for Louisiana:

* Require financial disclosure information for members of the Legislature - Compared to other states, Louisiana has virtually no financial disclosure for legislators. Providing a reasonable level of financial disclosure, including ranges and sources of income, would provide more transparency in our government and allow the public to know if lawmakers have potential conflicts of interest. Interestingly, the Center for Public Integrity ranks Louisiana 3rd in the country in terms of financial disclosure laws for the governor. For legislators, were 46th.
* Close the loophole that allows legislators to receive free tickets to sporting and cultural events – This loophole has become symbolic of the Louisiana Legislature’s unwillingness to give up a perk it likes. State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting “things of value” from lobbyists. There are some exceptions, though, including tickets to sporting and cultural events valued at up to $100 each. For years, the Legislature has refused to close this loophole. Doing so in 2008 would send a message that the Legislature is changing business as usual and is responsive to the will of voters.
* Prohibit elected officials from using their own PACs or campaign funds to support other candidates for elected office – Some legislators have their own Political Action Committees, or PACS, which they can use to dole out money. Others use campaign funds they have received from contributors to support other candidates of their choosing. This should be stopped. Lawmakers should not use their positions of power in the Legislature to raise money from lobbyists so that they can have a slush fund to hand out money to other politicians or charities around their district. Likewise, the contributions candidates receive for their campaigns should not be used so that they can help other candidates get elected. Lawmakers, in particular, wield a great degree of power. These types of practices allow them to amass even more.
* Statutorily require disclosure information for nonprofit organizations or other private corporations that receive direct "earmark" appropriations from the state – It appears that some Lawmakers don’t want the public to know too much about some of the groups in their districts that they steer money to. That can be the only reason for the fact that for two years in a row the Legislature has failed to pass a bill to shine a little light on some of the private groups that get special "earmarks" from the state. That legislation would have required lawmakers who request this type of funding to include identification information about the organization, the legislator requesting the funds, a listing of the Board of Directors, what the money is supposed to be used for and a detailed budget. It also called for disclosure of any ties an elected official or immediate family member might have to the entity and that all the information be made available to the public via the Internet. Many of the agencies that receive these grants do tremendous work. With others there’s no way to know what the public is getting for its money. We should be able to find out.

PAR released its Ethics Reform Agenda for 2007 last March at the Ethics Symposium sponsored by the Louisiana Board of Ethics:
# Maintain the full authority of the Ethics Board to enforce the Code of Governmental Ethics for all elected officials and other public servants. Louisiana's two separate ethics boards for elected officials and other public servants were consolidated in 1997 into a single body. Recent challenges to the board's authority to enforce the code for legislators threaten to weaken this important reform. Establishing a separate enforcement body for any group of officials would create a double standard for ethical behavior, because each body could interpret the law differently.
# Require full, annual financial disclosure from all state elected officials, legislators and candidates for these positions. By requiring them to report their sources of income, the public can be made aware of real or perceived conflicts of interest. Current law only requires full disclosure from the governor (LSA R.S. 42:1124) and candidates for governor (LSA R.S. 18:463(B)).
# Prohibit legislators and other public servants from receiving anything of value from lobbyists or anyone doing business with or regulated by the state ("no cup of coffee" rule). Currently, several exceptions exist to the law forbidding public servants from receiving "things of value." Food, drinks and tickets to sporting events are good examples (LSA R.S. 42:1102.22 and 42:1123.13). These exceptions allow lobbyists to buy access to decision-makers that most citizens cannot afford.
# Undertake a comprehensive review of all exceptions in the Code of Governmental Ethics to prevent the continued erosion of the code (LSA R.S. 42.1123). There may be circumstances that warrant an exception to balance the state's need for a strong ethics law and the particular needs of a community or public entity. But those exceptions should be carefully crafted with a sunset provision to force a timely review. A strong ethics code backed by consistent enforcement is critical to improving the state's image and fostering a business-friendly environment supportive of economic development.
# Require those who hire lobbyists to disclose publicly their total lobbying expenditures, the names of the lobbyists hired and the subjects lobbied. The employers of lobbyists are not currently required to make any report to the ethics board; rather they are only required to report to the lobbyists any direct lobbying expenditures they make (LSA R.S. 24.55).
# Require lobbyists' reports to include the subject matter lobbied and itemized spending related to the subject matter lobbied. Current law requires lobbyists to register with the Ethics Board and identify their employers (LSA R.S. 24.55). They must disclose how much they spend and on whom they spend it if the expenditure exceeds a certain level. They do not have to report the subject matter lobbied. This additional disclosure would enable the public to better understand what role lobbyists play in the legislative process.
# Prohibit businesses owned by legislators and their immediate family members from receiving contracts from the state or any political subdivision unless the contract is competitively bid. Businesses where legislators or their family members have more than a five percent ownership interest should be included in the ban. By allowing contracts to be negotiated with state agencies, the current law opens the door for legislators to use their positions for inappropriate influence.
# Prohibit businesses owned by state and local public officials from receiving recovery-related contracts whether competitively bid or not. Tough ethics laws that keep public officials out of the recovery contracting business will help decrease the appearance of impropriety and help make the case for more federal recovery aid. Currently, recovery contracts with public officials are allowed but must be reported to the Ethics Board (LSA R.S. 42:1114.3). Businesses where legislators or their family members have more than a five percent ownership interest should be included in the ban.
# Prohibit a regulated business or the owner, director, officer or key employee of a regulated business, from making campaign contributions to elected officials responsible for regulating the business. Allowing such contributions creates a relationship where the official may feel beholden to aid contributors or companies may feel obliged to contribute. Campaign contributions figured prominently in the criminal convictions of two former insurance commissioners and one former agriculture commissioner. Some limited prohibitions are already in place for those associated with the insurance industry, hurricane recovery contractors and those in the gaming industry.
# Prohibit transfers of campaign funds from one candidate to another or among a candidate's political action committees to support another candidate. Current law allows the transfer of "excess campaign funds" from one candidate to another (LSA R.S. 18:1505(I)). Such transfers could be used as a type of leverage or bargaining tool to expand the power of the contributing candidate. A prohibition would ensure that citizens' campaign contributions are used for the purpose they were originally donated.
# Prohibit the use of contributions in a campaign for an office other than the one for which the contribution was made. Current law allows candidates to take contributions from one campaign and use them to run for another office (LSA R.S. 18:1505(I)). Contributions should be allowed to be used only for the purposes given. Any money left after reasonable deductions for expenses should be returned to donors or given to charity.
# Require that current laws mandating the disclosure of funding sources for the governor's transition activities (LSA 42:1125) apply to other state and local officials also. These state and local officials are not required to disclose the sources of funding for their transition teams, and there is some disagreement over whether they must disclose the names of team members and whether their meetings and records are subject to sunshine laws. Transition teams often influence early policy decisions for newly elected officials, and, as such, their business should be fully transparent.

The following publications, available on the PAR website, may be useful:

_ " Governmental Ethics Laws in Louisiana: Public Trust or Private Gain?," September 1995 (a collaborative report by the Bureau of Governmental Research and PAR)

_"White Paper on Governmental Ethics and Constitutional Revision," September 2003 Additional research and recommendations on the state's sunshine laws are also available.

Web Resources:

* Council for A Better Louisiana - http://www.cabl.org
* Public Affairs Research Council - http://www.la-par.org
* Louisiana Board of Ethics - http://www.ethics.state.la.us
* LA Ethics 1 - http://www.laethics1.com
* Blueprint Louisiana - http://www.blueprintlouisiana.com
* The Center for Public Integrity - http://www.publicintegrity.org
* Better Government Association Integrity Report, 2002 -
http://www.bettergov.org/IntegrityIndex_10.22.02.pdf


"Action, indeed, is the sole medium of expression for ethics."

~ Jane Addams


[1] An elected official may vote on such matters if he files a statement explaining the situation. Appointed board or commission members must either terminate the relationship causing the conflict or resign.

[2]In 2006, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to numerous felonies, including corruption of public officials.

[3] Business Image Survey, LSU Public Policy Research Lab [2004-05]

Click here to view the online survey results

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