In Gov. Kathleen Blanco's first address to the Legislature last month, she correctly warned that Louisiana's economic development hinges on cleaning up the state's historic reputation for political corruption. "One of the most discouraging things I hear from out-of-state CEOs is their negative perception of Louisiana," Blanco said. "They believe that to do business in Louisiana requires them to deal under the table."
Blanco's observations are supported by a Jan. 16 report on public corruption by Corporate Crime Reporter, a government watchdog. "The states with perhaps the worst reputation for corruption have historically been Louisiana, Illinois, Rhode Island and New Jersey," according to the report read aloud to the National Press Club in Washington. To help clean up this image, Blanco wants lawmakers to approve several ethics bills, including ones that would require lobbyist disclosure for expenditures involving the entire executive branch, and bar the practice of making secret campaign contributions by giving money in someone else's name. She also wanted to require annual financial disclosures by all statewide elected officials and legislators, but reportedly could not find a sponsor for the bill, even though most states have such safeguards.
Blanco's agenda does not include the boldest recommendations of a "white paper" issued by the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) -- ideas that she endorsed during her campaign. Among the missing reforms is PAR's proposal to prohibit legislators, their families and their businesses from contracting for state and local government work "unless it's competitively bid." (To read the paper in full, see www.la-par.org.)
Blanco needs both a bolder game plan and a better quarterback for reform measures in the Louisiana Senate. We again call for the removal of Sen. Charles "C.D." Jones, D-Monroe, who as chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee oversees all ethics legislation in the Upper Chamber. Since we first editorialized on Jones on Jan. 27, his chairmanship has become an even bigger embarrassment. On April 6, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle observed: "[A]s Blanco spelled out a package of proposed changes in state ethics law, it was hard to get past the horse-laughs still surrounding the January appointment of state Sen. C.D. Jones."
Jones has been fined 10 times by the ethics board since 1998, including once for a conflict-of-interest violation involving his family. As a lawyer, he was twice disciplined by the Louisiana Supreme Court in the early 1990s for failing to properly represent his clients and for failing to cooperate with investigations of his misconduct. Senate President Don Hines has defended his appointment of Jones, while downplaying his colleague's sordid record of ethics board fines. New Orleans attorney C.B. Forgotston, a former chief legislative counsel, correctly notes that the state ethics code is rooted in the state constitution. It contains civil as well as criminal penalties. "Breaking ethics laws is not like a stepping-stone to corruption -- it is corruption," Forgotston says.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Ethics Commission, which Jones now oversees, acknowledged April 14 that the board has not pursued a possible $55,000 fine against the senator for his apparent violation of a tough campaign finance law -- a law that he and the rest of the Senate unanimously approved in 2001 ("Jones' $55,112 Question," Jan. 20). The ethics board's chart of proposed legislation for the ongoing session shows the panel supports all nine bills proffered by Jones, including five measures referred by the board itself. Yet the senator's personal record confirms widely held views of Louisiana politicians as less than ethical:
• On March 18, a Monroe television station reported that Jones belatedly avoided seizure of his assets to pay a $35,000 bankruptcy debt in Ohio. A state judge in Ouachita Parish ordered the senator's assets seized to satisfy the debt, which flowed from a failed business in which Jones had invested, KNOE-TV reported. The day after the judge signed the seizure papers, the senator paid the debt in full.
• In a letter dated April 8, Senate President Hines responded to a Gambit Weekly public records request for a list of "any Senate member, officer, or employee whose Senate dining account became at least 120 days in arrears after the 2004 special session." Jones was the only debtor on the list. Hines notes the $384 his colleague owed was paid on March 31, a week before the response was sent to Gambit Weekly.
• Finally, we note that a timeless quotation by Jones during a bygone legislative debate appeared on the April 6, 2004, entry of The 365 Stupidest Things Ever Said calendar: "I've had just about all of this good government stuff I can stand." In her legislative address, Blanco said, "I hope that my next letter to business leaders will talk about how Louisiana is improving its image by strengthening our ethics laws." We hope so, too. But that will require sending a stronger signal on ethics matters. The governor must fight to eradicate even the appearance of corruption in Louisiana by pushing all 23 PAR recommendations for ethics reform. She can start by replacing her woebegone point man on ethics in the Senate. Otherwise, integrity in Louisiana government will remain just another bad joke.