Last week's news that Gov. Bobby Jindal's campaign violated the state campaign finance law was more than a mere embarrassment for the new governor. The violation, which Jindal admits and for which he has agreed to pay a fine, exposes the Boy Wonder's underbelly on the issue of "ethics reform." The violation can easily be cast as a technical one, but it is also substantive because of the amount of money involved and because it involves a campaign for governor. Last June, the state Republican Party spent more than $118,000 on direct mail promoting Jindal's campaign for governor. That's perfectly legal, but it also was eminently reportable on Jindal's next campaign finance report as an 'in-kind" contribution.
Jindal's July 2007 report did not disclose the contribution, although the party's report did. Later, in September, Jindal's campaign filed an amended report acknowledging the expenditure but by then it was past the reporting deadline. Acting on a formal complaint brought by a Democratic operative, the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which allegedly enforces campaign finance laws, conducted a 'private investigation" and concluded on Jan. 10 just days before Jindal's inauguration that the new governor should be charged. He faces a $2,500 fine, which he has agreed to pay to put the matter to rest before the Ethics Board's scheduled July 10 hearing on the matter.
Clearly, this is not the launching pad that Team Jindal (which is big on scripting Jindal's every move) would have ordered for his long-promised "comprehensive ethics reform" legislative package, which is still in the works. At the same time, the flap underscores what many say is a major gap in all of Jindal's pronouncements about "comprehensive" ethics reform: it doesn't include a word about campaign finance reform.
"This kind of thing is at the heart of some of the most pertinent arguments for the inclusion of campaign finance in the ethics package," Shreveport demographer Elliott Stonecipher told The Times-Picayune. Stonecipher has studied and written about ethics reform extensively.
Stonecipher told me he became pessimistic about the prospects for "comprehensive" ethics reform after reading the Jindal Transition Team's recommendations on that subject. The ethics reform task force's report only tangentially mentions campaign finance reform after acknowledging that the subject was beyond the group's charge. (See, www.louisianatransition.com/reportsEthicsTransitionAdvisoryCouncilRecommendations.pdf)
"Campaign finance has never been on the table in their work," Stonecipher noted. "The absence of campaign finance reform in many key areas proves that this is not comprehensive ethics reform, if Jindal follows these recommendations in writing his bill(s)."
Stonecipher describes comprehensive ethics reform as a "three-legged stool" (and he apologizes for the overworked metaphor). "Campaign finance reform, elected official financial disclosure down to the local level, and top-to-bottom lobbying reform removing all identifiable perks for "public' service are the legs, and enforcement is the seat of the stool," Stonecipher says. "To date, that's clearly not where the governor is headed."
Stonecipher predicts that, if Jindal excludes campaign finance reform from his legislative package, he will give us "hit-a-single-and-call-it-a-home-run" ethics reform. Under that scenario, PACs would continue to proliferate, as would unregistered and unaccountable third party contributions, bundling and other loopholes. That would please the politicians immensely, but ultimately it would not improve our image or reduce corruption.
The new governor no doubt is embarrassed by his campaign finance flub, but the snafu gives him the perfect opportunity to stand tall and, using himself as an example, deliver on his promise of 'comprehensive" ethics reform. If Jindal truly wants to break from Louisiana's past, he won't find a better issue than this.
Correction: Last week in "Note to Bobby: The Campaign's Over (Politics, Jan. 22), I wrote that former Govs. Dave Treen and Buddy Roemer each inherited a $1 billion deficit when they took office. That was true of Roemer. It was not true of Treen. In fact, Treen inherited a $600 million surplus, which was spent in short order. When Treen left office in 1984, Edwin Edwards inherited a nearly $1 billion deficit. I apologize for the error.