Gov. Bobby Jindal gets a lot of mileage out of his so-called ethics reform package, which state lawmakers adopted soon after the governor took office in 2008. Every time he travels the country raising campaign money, which is often, the governor touts Louisiana's much-improved rankings on various lists of states' ethical standards — and of course he takes credit for that. The truth is that Jindal's ethics package was a mixed bag. Some of his reforms brought major improvements; others only made things worse. Overall, Jindal imposed tougher ethical and transparency standards on everybody else — but not himself.
For example, reporting requirements for elected and appointed officials are much tighter now, bringing significantly more transparency to state government — except for the governor's office. Moreover, enforcement and prosecution of ethics and campaign finance laws have been gutted, to the point that the state ethics board is often portrayed as a toothless tiger. And when it comes to transparency, Jindal actually made his own office less transparent — so much so that it has been called the least transparent governor's office in the country. The governor conveniently fails to mention these failures (or take responsibility for them) in his stump speeches.
Now, after four years of complaints and criticisms from many of the same good-government advocates who clamored for reforms before 2008, the governor has decided it's time to reform his reforms. That's good news — if Jindal is sincere. Judging by the governor's track record, that's a big "if." So far, he has offered only vague promises of areas he wants to tighten up, not specific legislation that citizens and government watchdogs can examine in detail. In the absence of specifics, reform advocates can't really know how serious Jindal is about Ethics Reform 2.0. Here's what we do know, based on his recent pronouncements:
• He intends to clarify that the state ethics board is responsible for enforcing Louisiana's campaign finance laws.
• He wants to allow the ethics board to appeal decisions of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, which he created in 2008, to state courts — under limited circumstances.
• He proposes to give the ethics board more time to investigate and prosecute ethics violations.
Conceptually, all of those are good ideas. Each addresses a topic that, since 2008, has been held up as an example of shortcomings in the governor's reform package. Collectively, they represent much of what the ethics board has been asking of Jindal and lawmakers in recent years.
In our view, the worst thing Jindal did to the Ethics Code in 2008 was take adjudicatory power away from the ethics board and give it to the newly created Ethics Adjudicatory Board — a panel of administrative law judges who report to someone appointed by Jindal. We acknowledge the problems inherent with the old system, under which the ethics board served as investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. The solution, however, was not to gut the board's enforcement powers but rather to create a new investigative and prosecutorial entity — and to let the board continue to interpret ethics laws and adjudicate cases. Clarifying that the ethics board has the power to "enforce" campaign finance laws is a step in the right direction, but it means little if the Ethics Adjudicatory Board is not required to follow established precedents and interpretations laid down by the ethics board. The law should require at least that much.
Which brings us to the second area of reform: allowing the ethics board to appeal decisions by the administrative law judges. Ever since Jindal's new scheme took effect, conflicts have arisen between the ethics board and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, not the least of which was the issue of who could overrule whom. Now the governor suggests letting the ethics board appeal "some" decisions by the adjudicatory panel — but only those involving issues of law. In other words, if the judge gets it wrong on the facts, too bad. This only underscores what's wrong with this aspect of Jindal's "reforms" in the first place. We agree with ethics board chair Frank Simoneaux, who wants the board to have full rights of appeal to the district courts.
Lastly, the governor wants to give the ethics board more time to bring cases against violators. His 2008 reforms imposed a one-year time limit, which allowed some miscreants to game the system by stalling for time 'til the clock ran out. That loophole needs to close.
The next legislative session begins March 12. We hope the governor presents a package of ethics bills that lives up to his promises.