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'Reforms' in Need of Reform

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After four years of touting ethics "reforms" that were largely window dressing, Gov. Bobby Jindal finally acknowledges that his "gold standard" needs some polishing. Jindal is backing a handful of bills in the current legislative session to tweak the 2008 changes that he rammed through a special session with little opposition and even less thoughtful analysis.

  Most of Jindal's bills are good ideas, but some of them, typically, don't go far enough. State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, is handling Jindal's proposals via House Bills 942, 950 and 955.

  The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), which for decades has been a leading advocate of reform, recently published a 36-page analysis of the state's ethics and campaign finance laws. PAR makes more than a dozen recommendations that Jindal and lawmakers should heed. The report is available online at www.parlouisiana.org. It's not light reading, but the study's focus goes to the heart of governmental integrity. PAR's suggestions include:

  • Clearly define the authority of the state Board of Ethics and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board. This problem was created by Jindal's 2008 "reforms."

The governor effectively gutted the ethics board in '08 by shifting its "adjudicatory" authority to administrative law judges (ALJs) who answer to a Jindal appointee. Before those changes, the ethics board functioned as investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. Now the ALJs are the judges and the ethics board is the prosecutor. That's fine, but the lines of authority and jurisdiction are fuzzy — especially in cases involving campaign finance law violations.

  • The ethics board must have the right to appeal adverse rulings by ALJs, who themselves are new to this process. Jindal wants to limit that right to "questions of law." A good argument can be made for that, but the law should define "questions of law." The existing Administrative Procedures Act has a good definition. The ethics laws should use that standard — but require it to be interpreted broadly in ethics cases.

  • Lawmakers should tighten prohibitions against spending campaign funds for personal use. The state's current definitions are vague (probably on purpose). Federal campaign finance laws offer a model standard. They prohibit any expenditure that is "used to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's election campaign or individual's duties as a holder of federal office."

  Federal law specifically prohibits using campaign funds for home mortgage payments, clothing, noncampaign auto expenses, country club memberships, vacations, household food, tuition and tickets to sporting events and concerts. That would force quite a change in lifestyle upon some Louisiana lawmakers.

  "If somebody is using campaign funds for personal use, it's really no different than taking a gift, which is prohibited," says PAR president Robert Scott. "The definitions are not clear enough."

  Scott says Jindal's current package of bills "looks pretty good so far — except the bill on appeals." PAR wants a broader right of appeal for the ethics board, but Scott says PAR would settle for authority to appeal "questions of law" if the term is broadly construed. Scott says PAR also is concerned that Jindal's bill would require a unanimous vote of the ethics board to file an appeal.

  Requiring a unanimous vote to appeal a case is ridiculous, because it means an errant politician would only need to coopt one board member to forestall an appeal. It's the same kind of one-step-forward-two-steps-back legerdemain that was the hallmark of Jindal's 2008 "reforms."

  The PAR report contains many more recommendations that lawmakers ought to heed — if for no other reason than to make an honest man of Bobby Jindal when he boasts on his many fundraising trips that he has brought an ethical "gold standard" to Louisiana.

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