Somebody needs to help the Louisiana Ethics Commission find the people the board is supposedly looking for.
For example, attorneys for the ethics board say they have been unable to locate George Ackel, who allegedly owes $26,000 in penalties and fees for late campaign finance disclosure reports -- the highest amount owed by any candidate in the state.
Funny, we found the Metairie businessman listed in a phone book. When we left a message with his office, he returned our call right away.
For more than two and a half years, ethics officials have reportedly sent certified notices of civil fees and penalties to Ackel in connection with his 1995 campaign for a state Senate seat on the Northshore. His name and those of other allegedly delinquent former candidates have appeared in published reports by the ethics board and in this newspaper ("Payment Past Due," Aug. 15, 2000). Last week, Ackel said that his son filed the proper reports for him after our story appeared. However, Ackel said he never received any of the ethics board notices.
The failure to timely file one campaign finance report alone for 359 days resulted in $10,000 of the total fine. "There was never an intent to alter the system or not to file something," Ackel says. "I had no campaign debt to anyone other than myself [and] I have nothing to hide. ... I'm not going to pay them [$26,000] or whatever they say I owe them because I don't think I did anything worthy of that."
We'll leave it for a judge to decide Ackel's case. Our concern is why the ethics board, part of the vast network of state government, has been unable to locate high-profile people who allegedly owe money to the public treasury.
In March, for example, Ackel appeared in a widely broadcast television news report in the metro area after a man he did not know was found murdered in a Mandeville house that Ackel owned, but did not live in. Ackel is not a suspect in the case, which has since been solved. But the folks at the Baton Rouge-based ethics commission say they weren't even aware of that case. The board should have been able to enlist the aid of St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain in locating Ackel and informing him of the penalty against him.
Another former candidate now "eluding" the board is Joe "JJ" Jones, who ran for an Orleans Parish School Board seat in March 2000. Jones allegedly owes the ethics commission $480 in fines. The folks at the ethics board say they cannot find a current address for him. But in New Orleans, Jones can be found by turning on a television set. He has a cable TV talk show.
And let's not forget Joseph "Chuck" West, a candidate for the New Orleans City Council in the 1998 elections. He still owes the ethics board $2,000 for failure to file campaign finance reports. West was originally hit with a $10,000 fine. He managed to talk the board into a reduction -- then he disappeared.
If the ethics board had a little input from our local district attorneys, they might have thought twice about a plea-bargain. A career felon prior to running for the council, West may have considered his venture into local politics a lateral move. He got busted for scamming metro area businesses from inside a prison -- where he was already serving time for one of his seven felony convictions. Before he skipped town, West did a good job of embarrassing metro area cops and prosecutors with his petty crime waves ("Ad Nauseam," Sept. 8, 1998).
Here's one more: Alan Jathoo, who in 1999 told us he was a 24-year-old Tulane University political science major, running for the House District 93 seat because he was inspired by the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. During the campaign, Jathoo spoke eloquently of how young people do not vote because "the political culture has turned them off." Now, he looks like part of the problem. Jathoo now owes the state of Louisiana $780. Plus, a Tulane spokesman says the university can find no record of Jathoo's having been a student there.
The fees, fines and penalties administered by the ethics board are levied on behalf of the public and are designed to put some teeth into Louisiana's ethics laws. Even if Ackel, Jones, West and Jathoo never seek office again, they must still answer for their debts to the public. Now that a state court at Baton Rouge has garnished the salary of Orleans Parish Juvenile District Court Judge Yvonne Hughes for her $50,000 debt to the ethics board, board staff attorneys say they will accelerate efforts against Ackel and others.
Better coordination -- or, in some cases, any coordination -- with local law enforcement would be a good place to start.