Time to Deliver the Goods Gov. Bobby Jindal made ethics reform the centerpiece of his campaign last fall. Now it's time for him to deliver the goods. Voters and politicos alike are waiting anxiously for the new governor to show his hand. Jindal already has put lawmakers on notice that he intends to call a special legislative session devoted exclusively to ethics reform on Feb. 10, which means he has less than three weeks to draft specific legislation for lawmakers to consider. To his credit, Jindal enlisted the aid of business and community leaders familiar with the issues surrounding ethics reform during his transition period. Shortly before he took his oath of office, Jindal received a report from his Transition Advisory Council on Ethics, which made 17 reform recommendations. Now it's up to Jindal's team to transform those recommendations into specific legislation " and the sooner the better. Assuming Jindal's legislative advisers are already at work crafting the specifics, we'd like to offer a few suggestions of our own.
Include Campaign Finance. Most if not all statements that Jindal has made on the subject of ethics reform have been conspicuously silent on the subject of campaign finance. Cynics would argue that that's no coincidence " the new governor raised more than $15 million in his successful campaign last year, so why would he want to tinker with laws that allowed him to do that? We give Jindal the benefit of the doubt " for now.
We were heartened to see Jindal's transition advisors raise the issue, although their report noted that campaign finance reform 'was not a primary focus of the Council." For that reason, the council recommended 'conducting additional research to determine specific measures for campaign finance reform." The advisers went on to suggest some specific areas for improvement: restricting the timing of campaign contributions from lobbyists; adding more details to campaign finance reports; increasing electronic filing requirements; prohibiting the payment of ethics fines from campaign funds; and restricting the use of campaign dollars to campaign-related expenditures by prohibiting payments to family members or for entertainment, among other non-campaign expenditures.
Those suggestions are an excellent start, but we want to underscore our point that campaign finance is where many of the dirty deeds are done in Louisiana politics. To some, campaign contributions constitute a legal pathway around bribery laws. If we really want to clean up Louisiana's image, we have to recognize the old political adage, 'Money is the mother's milk of politics," and then, in Watergate jargon, we must 'follow the money." If Jindal is serious about ethics reform, he will put campaign finance reform high on his 'to-do" list. Do it now, Governor, not later.
Strengthen the Ethics Administration. This is one of several ideas that Jindal's transition advisory council embraced wholeheartedly. Specifically, the advisory council suggested the following improvements, all of which we endorse:
Ensure the independence of the Louisiana Board of Ethics and the Ethics Administration by changing the appointment process 'to minimize the impact of the governor and the Legislature " who fall under the purview of the ethics board " on the budget and the selection of board members." (See our Commentary, 'Wanted: Real Ethics Reform," Dec. 11, 2007.)
Improve the procedures of the ethics board to promote transparency and consistency via 'specific mechanisms to promote effective, uniform and fair enforcement." That includes lifting the veil of secrecy that shrouds so much of what the board does, and establishing tighter guidelines for waivers, reductions of fines, and corrected reports. As we noted in this space last month, the board's investigations should become matters of public record earlier in the process. Otherwise, as has been the case in the past, the board will continue to be more a whitewashing mechanism than a watchdog.
Increase the budget and staffing of the Ethics Administration to improve technology, expand training programs, and respond to other new responsibilities.
Create a Louisiana 'hot line" to report waste, fraud, and abuse, and protect whistleblowers who come forward.
Impose Criminal Penalties. The transition team suggests that the Ethics Board be required to refer late fines to the Attorney General's Office 'immediately after the board reaches a decision to levy a fine." The AG's office then should seek civil as well as criminal penalties, and the law may need to be changed giving the AG primary jurisdiction in such cases.
The importance of criminal penalties cannot be overstated. In the past, most ethics violations were either ignored or swept under the rug " and the most egregious violators received a slap on the wrist. That must change.
Overall, we like the direction outlined by the governor's transition advisory council, but we think more can and must be done. We hope the governor does not pass up the unique opportunity that history has presented him.