John Settle-Opinion-May 2015In what can be best described as a slam dunk, three Caddo candidates beat back efforts by the Louisiana Board of Ethics to have them disqualified for the October primary this week.

Caddo Commissioner Jerald Bowman will be able to continue his campaign for reelection to the Commission—much to the dismay of career politician Roy Burrell who has been in elected office and on the public payroll since 1994. Ben Arnold, who had previously run unsuccessfully for the Shreveport City Council, can continue his campaign against Mario Chavez to fill the seat of David Cox on the Caddo Commission. And upstart John McGrew gets to stay on the ballot for Caddo Sheriff against incumbent Steve Prator and Constable Eric Hatfield. Judge Craig Marcotte ruled for Bowman and Judge Ramon Lafitte ruled for Arnold and McGrew.

Govt HOGThe basis for all 3 challenges was the same—that each candidate had filed a false Notice of Candidacy which contains a certification that the candidate did not have any outstanding Board of Ethics fines. All 3 candidates did in fact have outstanding fines- $5000 for Bowman and $2500 for Arnold and McGrew; all 3 paid their fines after qualifying. The Ethics Board relied on statutes that provide for disqualification for failure to meet the qualifications for office— one of which is unpaid fines. At the hearings each candidate asserted failures of the Board of Ethics to properly notify them of the fines prior to the end of qualifying (September 10) as well as their good faith efforts to confirm that they did not have such fines outstanding. (Bowman had taken many more efforts to make sure he was all “paid up” before he qualified including a trip to Baton Rouge to visit with the Ethics Board personnel.)

The good government observers had conflicting reactions to the decisions. Many believed that the Courts were correct to follow the cases that hold that election laws should be liberally interrupted to promote rather than defeat candidates. These cases hold that any doubt as to qualifications of a candidate should be resolved in favor of permitting the candidate to run for public office.

Just taking notes…

Other observers were concerned that these candidates, all of whom had previously run for public office, had not taken care of their legal responsibilities to timely file campaign reports and to pay fines for delinquencies. And the fact that all 3 only paid these fines after being sued for disqualification was not reflective of sound campaign management and candidate integrity. To this crowd, the “late pays” were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, and they should have paid the price.

The Ethics Board did not appeal the Bowman case, but did appeal the Arnold and McGrew decision. Thus those two cases will soon be heard by a three judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in Shreveport. By this time next week, decisions will be handed down on these two cases.

No doubt the filing of these suits—the first by the Board of Ethics in northwest Louisiana – sent a message to all candidates in the upcoming primary, as well as those that will be filing in future local elections. And maybe that was the primary objective of the Ethics Board—and if so, it was a message that was long over due.

The bigger question is why the Board of Ethics has not attempted to collect the other outstanding fines. It’s no secret that former Caddo Commissioner Lindora Baker recently resigned her Commission seat due, in part, to her outstanding fines in excess of $5000. Why efforts had not been previously made to garnish her bloated Commission salary (in excess of $22,000 per year) is a mystery—much less the outstanding fines of now Shreveport Council person Stephanie Lynch from her prior Commission campaigns. Lynch was then and is now on the public payroll—and a wage garnishment is a routine legal matter that could be easily accomplished.

Feeding At the Govt titThe list of outstanding fines by former local public officials is quite lengthy—and it includes former councilmen Theron Jackson and Calvin Lester. This exhaustive listing on the Ethics Board website—which is statewide – – is a statement to something. Either the Ethics Board is not doing a good job because of a long list of unpaid fines or it is doing a good job by issuing the large number of fines. The website does not reflect how many fines have been assessed and paid—only those not paid—so it is impossible to calculate the percentage of collection. What is known is that judicial action has not been pursued—at least in this neck of the woods—to collect these moneys or to disqualify candidates until the 3 suits filed this month.

Campaign finance laws and disclosure have been a hot topic in recent years—both statewide and on the national scene. Campaign finance reports for the October primary are due were due on Thursday of this week (September 24) and those candidates who do not timely file can expect—and rightly so– a public roasting, and hopefully voter rejection. The finance reports will reflect the contributions to each candidate—which is often a factor in voter selection by those that carefully scrutinize candidates as well as by the local media. How much the reports—as well as the late pays by Bowman, Arnold and McGrew – – are a factor in each race is a story yet to be told.