COMMENTARY 02.26.08 Don't Gut Ethics Board Gov. Bobby Jindal has made a convincing case for ratcheting up Louisiana's ethics code, and substantial portions of his package of bills have made it through the legislative process during the special session that will conclude this week. Overall, we agree with Jindal's statements that Louisiana needs to improve its image, but we have serious reservations about some of his proposals. In the final days, lawmakers have a chance to pass some good legislation in the governor's package, improve on some of his bills that could use some tweaking — and kill at least one measure that clearly has not been thought through. In several bills, the governor seeks to set a very high standard, but not necessarily for some of his political appointees. House Bill 1, for example, would require significantly more financial disclosure by public officials. However, as initially introduced and pushed by the Jindal Administration, the bill would not apply to some members of the governor's inner circle. We think there should be one ethical standard for everyone in government, and we hope the governor comes "round to that point of view as well. Frankly, Jindal cannot truthfully claim "victory" at the end of the session if all he has accomplished is the application of tighter ethical standards for some and not others. The same criticism is true of Senate Bill 1, which would bar lawmakers and others from bidding on state contracts. On another ethical front, the state Ethics Board found itself in the cross hairs this session as a result of House Bill 41, which the Senate will take up this week. As initially proposed by the Jindal Administration, this bill would take away the Ethics Board's authority to decide cases against public officials brought by its staff. Instead, the board would merely become an investigative body, and administrative law judges — who are appointed by the executive branch — would hear the cases, decide if any violations occurred and determine what penalties, if any, to impose. If passed, HB 41 would bring about a major change in policy and law, yet it was sprung on lawmakers and the public with no advance warning. Last week, four leading "good government" groups urged lawmakers to put the brakes on HB 41. The groups include the League of Women Voters of Louisiana, Common Cause, the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) and the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). We add our voice to that chorus. For decades, the Louisiana Ethics Commission has had the authority to bring charges against public officials for alleged violations of state ethics laws and campaign finance disclosure laws. The board also adjudicates the charges and imposes administrative penalties. It's an imperfect system, to be sure, but with the recent change in executive directors at the Ethics Board, things are said to be improving. Critics of the current system complain that the board should not serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. They have a point, but no one made it a campaign issue last year, and even Jindal's blue-ribbon "ethics advisory committee" declined to recommend the kinds of changes outlined in HB 41 in its report to the governor's transition team. All of which makes the timing of the proposal highly suspicious. Some speculate that the governor is going after the Ethics Board for bringing charges against him related to a $118,000 "in-kind" contribution to his campaign, which was reported late. Others hypothesize that the bill's author, House Speaker Jim Tucker, is striking back at the board for his own reasons. The only thing that no objective observer has concluded is that there's a compelling reason to make immediate radical changes to the Ethics Board. Ethics Board members have offered their own solution to the problem cited by HB41's proponents: The board could split itself into two panels, one to perform the investigative/prosecutorial functions and the other to perform adjudicatory duties. Similarly, the board's staff would be separated by function. That's a reasonable alternative to the current set-up, but so far lawmakers have pushed ahead with HB41. We hope they and the governor will reconsider this week. In urging lawmakers to slow down and study this matter closely, PAR warned about "the unintended consequences of well-meaning reform" that could actually backfire in terms of public perception. CABL president Barry Erwin wrote to Jindal directly, asking him to pull back on the measure, saying HB41 "would, in essence, remove from the Board the primary role for which it was created." There's no doubt that Louisiana needs to improve its image and that stronger ethics laws will help. However, the best ethics laws in the land will mean nothing if lawmakers gut the agency set up to enforce those laws. We therefore urge the governor and lawmakers to kill HB41 and give this issue a chance to be vetted by citizens and reform advocates statewide.
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