by Elliott Stonecipher

Broken System“As this nasty and embarrassing saga has developed, we’ve fleshed-out the details of how a dozen-or-so political insiders killed ethics enforcement for their own protection.  Recently, some good government groups, most notably the Public Affairs Research Council, have pleaded with the architect of this bad-old-days no-ethics system, Governor Bobby Jindal, to restore the previous laws and enforcement regime.  PAR has been joined by the new ethics board chairman, a couple of media editorialists, and a two or three good-government watchdogs.”

That paragraph is from an article I wrote on March 14, 2010 about Louisiana’s flawed – apparently fatally – system to enforce our Code of Governmental Ethics.  The article’s title was, “The End of the Long Goodbye for the Louisiana Ethics Board?”

Ethics, Right!
Ethics, Right!

It was important back then to include the question mark at the end of that title, but since then, the ethics hupmobile has spit and sputtered its way back in time to Louisiana’s Land of Wink-and-Nod:  Governor Bobby Jindal’s “ethics reform” hooey has left Louisiana with a purposely twisted ethics enforcement system which protects those we hoped and believed it would monitor and sanction:  elected officials, notably state legislators.  We can almost hear Uncle Earl’s chuckle as ethics offenders wink, nod, and grin.

Ethics? No thanks...
Ethics? No thanks…

The political insiders who killed ethics enforcement were legislators with multiple ethics complaints against them, then moving through the ethics enforcement pipeline.  These legislative “leaders,” I then learned and documented, cut a particularly deadly-for-Ethics deal with Jindal:  he got an immediate special legislative session for “ethics reform” tailored to pass laws he thought would maximize his changes to be the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, and, in exchange, a handful of legislators and others were allowed to design an ethics enforcement mechanism which would protect them against any such policing.

Borderline insane with Jindal Fever, Louisianans looked the other way, including many in the news media and so-called good government groups.  Under their noses, ethics enforcement was trashed and replaced by supposed improvements which were, rather, the key underpinnings of a politician-protection racket:  

(1) the standard of evidence in civil law ethics adjudications was raised to the same level as criminal prosecutions, but without giving the ethics administration criminal investigators and prosecutors; and,

Ethics under construction
Ethics under construction

(2) Ethics Board members, nominated by apolitical private university presidents, lost their main duty of adjudicating ethics violations, replaced by a new and separate Ethics Adjudicatory Board (EAB) of state government administrative law judges.  These ALJs, as they are called, are picked and supervised by a single, unclassified employee who is hired by – and reports only to – the governor. 

Data from the separate databases of the two boards show that no meaningful policing of unethical politicians or other notable government officials has resulted.  According to the Ethics Board’s data,

—  between January 1, 2008 and February 15, 2013, a date range allowing for cases already in the pipeline as the change-over took place, a total of 136charges have been filed, and

—  Ethics Adjudicatory Board data shows that from itsmid-year 2009 beginning date through 2012, only 39 decisions have been made.  Of these 39 cases:

But, we are working...
But, we are working…

—  23 have been pro forma announcementsof failure to file campaign finance reports,

—  9 have been dismissals by the EAB of cases already investigated by the Ethics Board, and

—  2 decisions involve financial disclosures made by public officials, Jindal’s “ethics gold standard” claim to fame.

Words-for-ethicsOf the 136 Ethics Board cases resulting in charges and investigations, only 3 deal with political notables:  now- State Senator Rick Gallot, Jindal’s 2007 campaign opponent Walter Boasso, and “Pop” Hataway, former Grant Parish Sheriff, then a political friend of Jindal’s.  The new EAB, in some of its earliest acts, dismissed all charges against Gallot and Hataway, but fined Boasso’s campaign committee for not showing in its campaign finance reports how media payments were broken down.  From the jump, Jindal was 3-for-3.  

Gallot was, at the time, a state representative and Chairman of the House & Governmental Affairs Committee.  He, along with his Senate counterpart Robert Kostelka, were responsible for drafting and passing the bills reflecting the deal made with Jindal.  The ethics charges against Gallot, an attorney, related to conflicts of interest in services he provided to Grambling State University.  As the old Ethics Board was investigating the charges against him, Gallot was busily designing the laws which neutered that Ethics Board altogether.  The new adjudicatory board made its first decision in July 2009, and Gallot’s dismissal was its third decision, less than two months later.

Neutering ethics...
Neutering ethics…

The obvious issue is that legislators write the laws necessary to neutralize risk they and other public officials have from and by state ethics laws.  Along with a compliant governor, which Jindal personifies, such risks are very low.  But, just in case, the state senate has recently appointed a new Ethics Board member, former legislator Peppi Bruneau.  To understand his bias, check-out Saturday’s article from Marsha Shuler at the Baton Rouge Advocate.  Here is the pertinent part:

Money Kicks Ethics“An Ethics Board subcommittee has been studying the issue of appropriate use of campaign funds with an eye on developing rules and regulations.  But the board opted to ask the Legislature to weigh in first. The board has originally suggested that a model similar to that in Rhode Island be considered, but the recommendation ran into opposition from new Ethics Board member Peppi Bruneau.  Bruneau, a former legislator who crafted campaign finance laws, bristled at the suggestion. ‘I would not include the pejorative language of Rhode Island,’ Bruneau said. ‘When you send something like that you are going to get nothing done.’ 

Rhode Island’s law provides for a definition of personal use and provides a list of prohibited and permissible expenditures.”

Yep, Bruneau set Board members on the path of state capital righteousness with the hellfire and damnation of The Gospel According to Louisiana Legislators, precisely that of which the Ethics Board needs no more.  For 32 years between 1975 and 2007, Bruneau lived and breathed the rarified air of Louisiana political power.  Back now after a six-year break, he chastised the Ethics Board members with the stunning newsbreak that “Rhode Island” is a “pejorative” to our legislators.  (I’m still working to find out what Rhode Island ever did to Bruneau.)  Who knew that referring to the Ocean State would insult his legislative fellows and fellow-ettes into angry dismissal of the Ethics Board’s request for better laws to keep legislators from using campaign funds for personal living expenses?  Our Ethics Board, we all should note, did as Brueau directed.

Figure out where you fit in!
Figure out where you fit in!

Unless the Ethics Board figures out what role they really play, Bruneau may well become the group’s chairman at the earliest opportunity.  At that point, we should ask the legislature to legislate itself out of the ethics system, and let that branch devise an ethics ruse suited to itself, as does Congress.  Unethical behavior by legislators will remain untouched, but honestly is a virtue.  Local and all other state government officials would remain subject to the state Ethics Administration.

For now, unsuspecting – but not unethical – minor political participants, mainly at the local level, will be slapped and fined and used to gin-up highly misleading statistical “evidence” of ethics enforcement.  Such is nauseating evidence that Louisiana’s “ethics” regime has a highly unethical genesis and purpose.

As the curtain falls, a couple of hundred Louisiana political heavyweights got what they wanted thanks to Jindal’s “ethics reform” poop, while the other 4.6 million of us are the butt of yet another bad political joke. 

Good ole Uncle Earl!
Good ole Uncle Earl!

There’s a lot of that around Louisiana these days. 

Chuckle Uncle Earl … chuckle.

Elliott Stonecipher

Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest.  No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work.  This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.