Louisiana Senate President Don Hines, R-Bunkie, has made several troubling appointments recently. The worst is Sen. Charles D. Jones, D-Monroe -- a lawyer twice suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court for misconduct -- to chair the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. As chair, Jones would oversee all ethics and campaign finance legislation that passes through the Upper Chamber. Jones' record shows he is wholly unfit for what should be a prestigious chairmanship. His appointment should be rescinded immediately.
Jones has been fined nine times since 2000 for campaign finance violations, and he admitted to a conflict-of-interest violation involving his family in 1998, according to the Louisiana Ethics Commission. Most recently, Jones paid a $2,000 fine for failing to file a timely campaign finance disclosure report for the October 2003 election. Jones finally paid the debt Jan. 15 -- the day after Hines appointed him committee chair.
Hines, a physician who has served in the Senate since 1993, defends his choice of Jones. He says he was "unaware" that Jones paid a $7,500 fine in 1998 to settle an ethics board complaint that he and his family profited from state poverty programs that he helped to create and fund with state money. Hines tried to downplay his appointee's misconduct, saying Jones had done nothing "illegal or unethical." In fact, Maris LeBlanc, deputy general counsel for the ethics board, says late campaign report filings are a violation of the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, which is administratively enforced by the ethics panel. Hines is thus dead wrong in his assessment of the problem: Jones has committed acts that are clearly illegal and unethical. That's why he has been fined.
Gambit Weekly has also learned that the Supreme Court has twice disciplined Sen. Jones, according to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Supreme Court records.
On Jan. 1, 1993, the High Court suspended Jones from practice for a year and a day, but the suspension was reduced to six months and probation for two years, says Valerie Willard, chief spokesperson for the Supreme Court. "He was cited on several complaints of professional misconduct, including failure to represent a client and failure to cooperate with an investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel," Willard says.
In 1991, Jones, then a state representative, was suspended from practice for six months, records show. The High Court concluded that Jones failed to properly represent seven clients and that he failed to cooperate with an investigation into his misconduct. In one of the seven cases, Jones was retained for $750 to represent a minister regarding property in a succession. As an attorney, Jones failed to provide any legal services and did not pay restitution to the client until "more than one year after he told the Bar Association he would return the fee," records show.
Jones also was cited for failure to respond to two subpoenas issued by the Louisiana Supreme Court. "On both occasions, he claims there was a conflict with a legislative committee meeting, although not during a legislative session," the Court noted.
The Court found a "pattern of neglect" in Jones' misconduct. "Neglecting legal matters entrusted to him, failing to promptly return unearned fees, causing great potential harm, and failing to cooperate with [Bar Association investigators] warrant attorney Jones' suspension from the practice of law," the Court ruled.
In suspending Jones for only six months, the Court cited mitigating factors, including "inexperience" and that "the only other complaint against Jones resulted in a private reprimand." After learning of the disciplinary actions, Gambit Weekly was unable to reach Hines for more specific comment by press time. That does not change our opinion that Jones is wholly unfit to chair a legislative committee that oversees the ethics board.
Meanwhile, what Hines refers to as Jones' latest "oversight" of campaign finance laws is subject to further review and higher penalties. The campaign report he filed Dec. 23 (110 days late) is an apparent violation of a tough campaign finance reform law, which Jones and the rest of the Senate approved by a 35-0 vote in 2001. State Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, authored the legislation, which bans political candidates from spending campaign funds while they still owe ethics fines after appeals have been exhausted. Violators may be fined up to "200 percent of the expenditure." Jones spent $27,556 last year to get re-elected without opposition, while owing the ethics board more than $5,000. In Jones' case, he could be fined more than $55,000. The ethics board, which has failed to aggressively collect more than $1 million owed the state by politicians and their campaigns, should now proceed to enforce the law that Jones and his legislative colleagues put on the books.
Hines' choice of Jones also reflects poorly on Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who anointed Hines as Senate president. "Integrity is an important component of leadership," Blanco has said. "We must strengthen our ethics laws to eliminate even the perception of undue influence or conflicts of interest by our political leaders." Let's start by enforcing the laws on the books -- and by rescinding Jones' appointment.