When Gov.-elect Kathleen Babineaux Blanco takes office on Jan. 12, she has the immediate opportunity to prove herself tougher than her recent predecessors in her commitment to ethics. Recent administrations have been problematic, if not embarrassing. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence on corruption charges. Gov. Mike Foster became the first sitting governor in Louisiana history to be fined ($20,000) for violating campaign finance disclosure laws, after he failed to report that he paid white supremacist David Duke for a list of Duke supporters in the 1995 governor's race.
Blanco's campaign set a refreshingly different tone for the state. Five days before her election on Nov. 15, she announced her support of sweeping governmental ethics reforms proposed by the private Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a good government group. Her stamp of approval for PAR's recommendations (www.la-par.org) includes extending lobbying restrictions to the executive branch, expanding campaign financial disclosure requirements, prohibiting anonymous campaign contributions and reforming the process that allows legislators to do business with state agencies. "Integrity is an important component of leadership," Blanco said then. "We must strengthen our ethics laws to eliminate even the perception of undue influence or conflicts of interest by our political leaders. ... Sunshine is the best disinfectant."
Sunshine is a good start. But the real problem is a lack of political will. We need a courageous Ethics Board to vigorously enforce the existing laws. Seven of the 11 members on that board serve at the pleasure of the governor, who should set the highest standards and expectations. As it stands, the current board -- despite its professional and competent support staff -- has long been derided as a watchdog with little bark and no bite. It's an open secret among politicos that a personal appearance before the Ethics Board substantially reduces the likelihood of a heavy fine. In addition, political organizations that have repeatedly racked up thousands of dollars in fines have escaped with substantial reductions by agreeing to follow the law next time. The board does not keep records of how often it deviates from penalty recommendations of its staff attorneys. Charlotte Bergeron, author of the PAR "white paper" on ethics that Blanco has embraced, says: "I think there is a fair amount of (board) forgiveness in terms of reducing the penalties."
The Ethics Board also has a history of collection problems. In 2000, we scolded the board for failing to aggressively collect $150,000 in fines and judgments from candidates who exhausted the appeals process. Today, politicians owe our broken treasury nearly $1 million in outstanding fines, even though the list of political deadbeats is posted on the board's Web site. The board recently hired an additional attorney to pursue those claims -- but Blanco can save taxpayers some legal fees with a little tough talk of her own. As the leader of the Democratic Party in Louisiana, she can start by calling the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and demanding an accounting for the $3,000 fine it still owes the public till.
In 2001, we criticized the Ethics Board for failing to locate high-profile politicos with outstanding fines (one of whom we found in a phone book). The situation is not much better today. We reported Sept. 30 that veteran state Sen. Charles D. Jones of Monroe -- an influential lawmaker who voted for a tough campaign finance reform bill in 2001 -- has failed to pay more than $5,000 in outstanding ethics fines. The silence among the senator's political peers -- including other champions of ethics legislation -- has been deafening.
Three years ago, we were the first to report that attorney Yvonne Hughes owed the Ethics Board nearly $50,000 in fines and judgments from 16 previous campaigns. She got elected anyway, replacing a highly qualified incumbent Juvenile Court judge. Today, Hughes' legal career is in jeopardy. And she still owes $2,900 in fines to the Ethics Board.
In 2002, our perfunctory survey of Ethics Board data showed 20 state judges -- including one appellate court judge -- were fined for missing campaign finance deadlines. In aggregate, the prominence of some violators undercut a painstaking, one-year effort by the Louisiana Supreme Court to clean up the image of judicial campaigns ("The Tardy Twenty," Nov. 26, 2002). Similar disclosures of attorney-candidates in arrears stimulated the interest of the Louisiana State Bar Association via its Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which monitors lawyer conduct for the Supreme Court. Just last week, we counted no fewer than 10 attorneys on the Ethics Board's list of fines -- among them local lawyer Curklin Atkins, who last week was sentenced by a federal judge to six months home confinement, two years probation and $5,400 in fines for hazardously removing asbestos from his office in 1999. Now, if the state wants its money from Atkins, it will have to get in line behind the feds.
We hope Gov.-elect Blanco will set Louisiana on a course to improve its shabby ethics record. Charting such a course will take courage as well as sunshine.