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ETHICS REFORM LITE IN LOUISIANA

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Thursday, December 20th, 2007

New Orleans, Louisiana

ETHICS REFORM LITE?


Ethics reform has become the byword of the new Governor-Elect, a number of legislators, and a cross section of most good government groups and various associations throughout Louisiana in recent weeks. Emphasis so far has been directed at financial disclosure by elected officials, and cutting down on dinners paid by lobbyists at Chris’ steakhouse and other fine dining establishments in and around the Capitol. If no serious effort is made to beef up financial disclosure and limitation laws, then any serious ethics reform will be little more than window dressing. It’s all about the money, and there is way too much at play in the Bayou State.

Two events took place in recent weeks that makes any neutral observer wonder if there is really a commitment to dealing with the whole area of ethics reform. First out of the box, the new Governor, having initially committed to immediately calling a special session to deal with ethics, postponed any such effort because of the hew and cry from many legislators who wanted no conflict with the Washington Mardi Gras Ball. Secondly, new and old legislators alike held their annual Christmas party last week at the State Capitol. Who picked up the tab? Why of course, the lobbyists. Hey, things are off to a great start aren’t they?

You can dance with this pig anyway you want. But when all is said and done, it’s all about money. Where it comes from and who is goes too. And right now, there’s way too much of it coming from groups and individuals who are looking for something in return.

If some newly elected reform legislator wants to really draw the line in the dirt, here are a few places to begin:

  1. JUDGES – the overwhelming amount of campaign contributions to candidates for the judiciary in Louisiana come from attorneys. There is a pervasive feeling that tainted justice prevails in many Louisiana courts. What do you do about it? Simply cut out the money. Change the law to state that any judicial candidate or sitting judge is prohibited from accepting any campaign contributions, either directly or indirectly, from anyone who does business in the court system. That would include lawyers, bail bondsmen, and any suppliers of goods and services to the court. In addition, any case that comes before a sitting judge where any party has made a financial contribution either to the judge or to a previous opponent, the judge should be required to remove himself or herself from the case. Take the money out of the system, and you will go a long way to eliminating future scandals akin to the Wrinkled Robe debacle last year in Jefferson Parish.
  2. THE PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION – members here are funded in a major way by those very companies that the Commission regulates. So cut out the money. Require that any member of the Public Service Commission be prohibited from accepting any campaign contributions, directly or indirectly, from anyone who appears or is associated with those who appear before the Public Service Commission for regulatory help. The next step would be to eliminate the elected Public Service Commission altogether. Few other states have such a system, the issues are technical in nature, and the public has no concept to what the qualifications for such a position should be. The Commission really ought to be appointed. But the first step is to drastically limit where the money comes from.
  3. OTHER REGULATORS – there are a host of other officials and commissions that regulate what is supposed to be the public interest. An obvious example is the Insurance Commissioner. Make the same rules apply as outlined for judges and Public Service Commissioners. Prohibit the Insurance Commissioner from accepting any contributions from any individual or company that is regulated by the Department. Shut down the money, and you will put an end to favoritism, conflicts, out-right scandals like you are seeing with the Citizen’s Property Insurance Company.

(A disclosure and disclaimer here. I only half-heartedly followed such a rule when I held this position. It was a mistake. Money should be prohibited from those who are regulated. Quite frankly, this office too ought to be appointed. Forty other states appoint their Insurance Commissioner, including Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, New York, and a host of other more progressive states. It is time for Louisiana to do the same.)

There are other regulatory offices overseen by elected officials that should require limits on campaign funds. The Agriculture Commissioner gives out licenses, and oversees a variety of functions that involve the granting or denying of specific requests. Here again, campaign contributions come into play. The Commissioner of Agriculture should be prohibited from accepting funds from anyone where regulatory decisions are necessary.

And the same goes for the State Treasurer who chairs the Bond Commission. Cut out the money from bond attorneys, or any other group who appears before the Commission. The Treasurer drives this agenda, and the ability to raise funds from those whose blessing he gives should be prohibited.

One other area of abuse that needs to be addressed is the “bundling” of campaign contributions by one individual or group, spread through numerous LLCs, or through other fronts. In the last election, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring into Louisiana, much of it from out of state, by one group or individual who used such fronts to get around the campaign limits. The present law has holes big enough to drive a truck through. These holes need to be closed.

It’s fine to talk about limiting football tickets, fancy meals, and acquiring financial disclosure. These areas need to be addressed. But if the new Governor and legislature turn their backs on any effort to strengthen the financial disclosure and contribution laws, then any claim to success in ethics reform will prove to be a shallow victory.

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The dominating influence of wealthy special interests in the funding of campaigns has eroded public trust in our political system and discouraged political participation. In a system that gives undue access to lawmakers and influence on legislation to those who contribute large amounts to campaigns, most citizens believe their voice is not being heard.

– Common Cause

5 Responses
  1. Thomas O. Lind

    Jim:
    I agree with you concerning campaign contributions to judges. Of course if Louisiana were to (again) adopt a merit selection system of appointing judges, the problem of monitoring contributions to judicial candidates would be eliminated and, in fact, there would be no campaigning involved, ergo, no expenses to cover.

    Hope all is well with you and your family, and best wishes for a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Regards,

    Tommy

  2. Jim, Solid thinking, but…how does one organize the people? There is too much stealth in government. Like this. We read that a double fence is authorized on the Mexican border. Then last night, on a “right-wing” cable channel, we find the fence is really gone. Texas didn’t want it. So, while the fence is “legal,” it’s has been frustrated with new paperwork.
    To organize the public requires “truth.” No sides! But we don’t get the truth from our politicians. And not the press. Stealth.
    I believe the answer is to create an Internet site along the theme, “Truth to the People.” A Louisiana “Google”. As is said, “So clean (with the truth), it squeaks.”

  3. Chip Wagar

    Jim: Amen to your comments on taking the money out of the judicial system. You know I think the time has come for Merit Selection in Louisiana to address the abysmal ratings our state gets regarding judicial competence and impartiality. Strict recusal rules along the lines you suggest are not only consistent with the ABA’s model judicial canons but would largely eliminate the ‘impartiality’ problem caused by the corrupting influence of money. It makes no difference whether its the lawyers, the corporations or the bail bondsmen who do it. It is a rotten system and must be addressed by Governor Elect Jindal or he will indeed be offering up “Ethics Lite”. Great article!

  4. I agree that true Ethics Reform must be more than “window dressing.” For that to happen, we must address the current situation where judges can receive campaign contributions the day a decision is rendered in their court! If we can’t pass merit selection of judges and join the majority of other states in moving away from elections and towards some kind of appointive system, we must enact meaningful recusal laws! Thanks for the opportunity to join in on the issue.

  5. Martha Kane

    I agree with taking the money out of elections that are given to influence the elected. However, “merit” selection really frightens me. I don’t trust any group that has the power to select. Real reform must eliminate contributions from the people who have any connection to the persons who will be regulated or judged by the person in office. I grow more disappointed in Jindal by the day. He is making the same mistake that Treen and Romer made. Appointing some of the same people who have a vested interest in keeping the old system in effect. His appointees are supposed to be advising him and “watching his back”. They are watching alright, with the long knives hidden up their sleeves ready for a quick stab. I can’t believe he is that naive. I can’t envision any meaningful reform taking place. I suppose that “good” government in LA is still just a dream. Just wait until you have a case before a judge in which opposing council is the judge’s campaign manager. Been there, done that. I believe we have just fallen for the old Jimmy Davis “reform”. We can continue to hope and dream, but I fear that it won’t happen in my lifetime, and I’m only about five years older than you. Good column, but I’m afraid we can only watch and mourn the dream.

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