Eight years ago, Congressman Bill Jefferson, D-New Orleans, strolled confidently into the offices of Gambit Weekly, seeking the newspaper's endorsement in his campaign to unseat Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Foster in the 1999 statewide elections. Foster won re-election handily.
Jefferson today faces federal corruption charges stemming from alleged schemes to use his political influence to enrich himself and members of his family.
For his part, Foster left office as the only sitting Louisiana governor to admit violating state campaign finance disclosure laws. Both he and Jefferson became harbingers of the current campaigns for full financial disclosure by Louisiana elected officials.
During the 1999 campaign, Gambit Weekly urged all candidates for governor and the state legislature to make public their income tax returns for the three previous years. Of all the candidates interviewed, only Jefferson flatly refused the paper's request. The following exchange came during an Oct. 8, 1999, interview with Jefferson:
Gambit Weekly: '[W]e've asked [Gov. Foster] to make his income tax returns public and he said he'd think about it. Would you be willing to make your returns public, for the last three years?
Bill Jefferson: No.
GW: Why not?
BJ: I just think it's too invasive.
BJ: Period. We have so little in our private lives that we can hold onto in public life. And I do what the law requires every time. I disclose everything I'm supposed to disclose, and that's it. I never go farther than that " I never will. I just think we've got to have some zone of privacy. And that's it " for me.
GW: It's interesting. Every other candidate for state House or state Senate has been willing to make those returns [public].
BJ: Maybe they feel like it doesn't bother them. I've been in [politics] for 20 years. You go through with your children, trying to keep them protected. You go through with your family, trying to have some sort of zone of privacy. You try to go to church and not have people talk to you all the time. You've got to find something in this life that you can hold on to. And for me, I have never failed to file a disclosure or failed any ethics law or to adhere to them. But I don't believe that we should go farther than that to prove that we are cleaner than " I don't know what. But, for me, I file my income taxes on time. I paid them on time and that's it. I don't, I don't, I'm not going to make a record of my private life, no.
The paper issued no endorsement in the governor's race that year and noted Jefferson's objections in an editorial published Oct. 19, 1999. 'In Louisiana ... our history of scandal demands that public officials go the extra mile and inspire public confidence," we noted.
In fairness, Gambit's call for release of candidates' income tax returns was more stringent than most financial disclosure guidelines used by many states today.
Foster won re-election and Jefferson returned to Washington. Foster would leave the governor's office in 2004 under a cloud. He paid a $20,000 fine to the state ethics board for admittedly trying to conceal a $103,000 campaign deal with white supremacist David Duke. (Duke, a former candidate for governor against EWE in 1991, later went to federal prison himself after pleading guilty to bilking his supporters of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Edwards, now 80, is still serving a 10-year sentence for a federal corruption conviction.)
Kathleen Blanco succeeded Foster in 2004. She promised sweeping ethical reforms, but achieved only modest success. 'She proposed a financial disclosure bill but couldn't get anyone to support it," says James Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a private think tank. 'Then later, when financial disclosure was introduced by others, she gave it tepid support and it went down in flames."
As campaigns gear up for the Oct. 20 primary election, 'full financial disclosure" has become a political mantra.
A business-led coalition called Blueprint Louisiana (www.blueprintlouisiana.org) is urging candidates to adopt the nation's toughest ethics laws. The Blueprint plan requires candidates for all statewide elected positions, the Legislature, appointees to the Louisiana Ethics Commission 'and their respective spouses" to disclose information on employment, assets and liabilities, using range estimates rather that exact dollar figures to protect privacy.
Meanwhile, all four major candidates for governor " Bobby Jindal, Foster Campbell, Walter Boasso and John Georges " as well as many legislative candidates support some type of financial disclosure requirements. However, Brandt says, 'there's a lot of detail yet to be filled in" by those who have not embraced the specifics of the Blueprint plan. Among the major candidates for governor, only Georges has signed the pledge to back it if elected; more than 50 area legislative candidates likewise have promised to support it.
Presently, Louisiana ranks third in the nation for financial disclosure requirements for governor, but 44th among state legislatures, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
- During the 1999 campaign, Gambit Weekly urged all candidates for governor and the state legislature to make public their income tax returns for the three previous years. Of all the candidates interviewed, only Bill Jefferson flatly refused the paper's request. Now, "full financial disclosure" has become a political mantra.