The Louisiana Board of Ethics' most recent meeting in Baton Rouge was a busy one. About 35 items on the agenda — the bulk of the day's business — concerned requests that the board waive fines assessed against various office holders, former candidates, political action committees and lobbyists, mainly for blown deadlines in filing the myriad reports the state requires of those who participate in Louisiana politics.
For political rookies, Louisiana's campaign finance laws can be a minefield, and accruing thousands of dollars in fines is routine.
A recent analysis by the newspaper chain Gannett found more than 340 current office holders and former candidates owe the state of Louisiana more than $1 million in fines for filing late campaign finance reports dating back at least to the early 1990s. Political action committees are on the hook for about $75,000, with the United Democratic Ballot Inc. of New Orleans owing the most at $14,000. In fact, nearly half of the fines owed (according to the ethics board) are connected to candidates and/or committees in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
Fines range from $40 a day for local offices up to $100 a day for statewide campaigns, with a cap at $2,500 per report. Candidates who file multiple tardy reports can generate many thousands of dollars in fines. But getting people to pay those fines isn't as easy as levying them — an issue that will have the Board of Ethics seeking a judgment on the matter soon in state district court.
"The question is, are [fines] collectable?" says Kathleen Allen, the ethics board's chief administrator. After issuing a fine against an individual or political action committee, the board sends a notification letter that a fine has been levied. If the board receives no response by the payment deadline, it may go to district court to seek a judgment against the violator. For fines over $500, the board turns the case over to a special collections division in the state attorney general's office, which, under a 2006 agreement with the ethics board, has an incentive to make the violator pay: The AG's office gets a 25 percent cut.
But not every fine is "collectible," as Allen puts it, meaning some deadbeats can be hard to track down or cannot pay the fine. "If we are able to get to the judgment stage and have those hearings and give them the notice, if we get to the judgment ... some are in bankruptcy," Allen explains.
Critics of Gov. Bobby Jindal's 2008 "gold standard" ethics reform package say the new enforcement provisions are toothless when it comes to campaign finance. Under the old system, the ethics board served as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.
Jindal's "reform" plan created the Ethics Adjudicatory Board (EAB), a seven-member panel of administrative law judges under the auspices of the Division of Administrative Law. The head of that division is appointed by the governor.
The EAB "conducts public hearings to receive evidence on facts alleged in formal charges brought by the Louisiana Board of Ethics and determines whether any violation of any provision of law within the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics has occurred," according to the EAB's website.
But a recent court ruling in Baton Rouge threw into dispute which body — the ethics board or the EAB — has the power to enforce campaign finance fines that have gone unpaid. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported recently that the EAB declined more than a dozen hearings for campaign finance cases, citing a lack of jurisdiction. The EAB, according to the report, believes that unless a fine is appealed, it's not EAB's problem.
According to Allen, the ethics board soon will seek a declaratory judgment in district court in Baton Rouge hoping to settle the matter. "Where we are right now is, if there's not payment, who's conducting the initial hearings to obtain those judgments?" she says. "That's what will be pursued, to get that question answered."
In the meantime, collecting fines for campaign finance violations in Louisiana has come to a screeching halt.
Even the board's 2006 deal giving the attorney general's office a 25 percent cut on collections is yielding mixed results. For example, Al Donovan Jr. of River Ridge, a Democrat and one-time executive counsel to former Gov. Edwin Edwards, has yet to pay a dime on the $42,000 in fines he owes for several late filings in connection with a 2003 race for secretary of state. The same holds for Shreveport attorney JoAnn Gines, who accrued more than $23,000 in fines for a failed district judgeship bid in 1994.
Former Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who racked up $45,440 in fines for failing to file or for filing late in races in 2000 and 2004, has entered into a payment plan with the board to resolve his debt. To date, according to the board's website, Fahrenholtz has paid about $15,500, leaving him with a nearly $30,000 balance.
In 2008, Fahrenholtz was disqualified from running against then-incumbent Congressman Bill Jefferson because he failed to indicate on his qualifying papers he had an outstanding debt with the ethics board. Fahrenholtz challenged the disqualification, but ultimately remained off the ballot.
According to Gannett's recent analysis, in the five years since the AG's office has served as a collection agency for ethics fines, nearly 130 cases involving more than $520,000 in fines have been processed. Almost half that amount — about $242,000 — has been collected, and 49 of the 130 cases have been paid in full.
Most individuals on the ethics board's list of outstanding fines are losing candidates. Some of them face fines that exceed the amount they spent on their failed campaigns. Short of some tough measures — and a resolution to the squabble between the board and the EAB — many who owe fines no doubt see little value in shelling out big bucks for their brief but vain twirls in the political arena.
It's a different story for those currently in office, however, and for those who plan to seek elective office. For them, the ethics board has a new tool at its disposal. Earlier this summer, Jindal signed into law a bill that requires candidates to have paid their ethics fines in full before they can qualify to run for office.
Previously, a candidate could enter into a payment plan with the board and then qualify. But, as Allen told a House committee, many who owed fines simply entered into a payment plan in order to qualify — and then walked away after losing the election.
Shreveport demographer Elliott Stonecipher, a loud and frequent critic of the governor's "gold standard," calls it a "deliberate wrecking of ethics law enforcement" and a "gimmick" designed to burnish Jindal's image during "the then-underway hustle for the Republican Party's 2008 presidential campaign ticket."
Stonecipher often pens detailed emails criticizing Jindal's plan. Recently, he wrote: "Notably, several of the 'legislative leaders' on board to eviscerate ethics enforcement had serious ethics violation cases against them which were under investigation at that time, but any public mention of that fact was illegal under state law. Literally, these 'leaders' were writing and passing laws which would specifically protect them when their cases reached any such point of need.
"All of the worst predictions have now come to pass. Our ethics administration has, effectively, ceased functioning. Louisiana is now in a far worse position to police ethics laws than at any time since their 1960s origin. Such is Jindal's legacy, whether he rushes off to some new job tomorrow, or hangs around for another term as governor."
Walter Pierce is the managing editor of the Independent Weekly in Lafayette, where a version of this story first appeared.