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Ominous Beginning 

The kickoff of Gov. Bobby Jindal's special session on ethics reform was foreshadowed by indications that his "gold standard" might be easier to promise than achieve.

Gov. Bobby Jindal caught more flak than beads over the long Mardi Gras weekend. This much is certain: Jindal released his official call, or agenda, for his much-ballyhooed special session on ethics reform the Friday before Fat Tuesday, loading up his legislative package with unprecedented promises just as New Orleans' superkrewes did their own packing and loading. Indeed, Jindal was preparing for his own carnival of sorts. Unfortunately for the new governor, spectators didn't exactly shout with glee in response to his parade of proposed new laws and constitutional amendments. Jindal was flooded with phone calls from lawmakers and special interest groups over the weekend, and he reportedly fielded what calls he could. By last Monday, Lundi Gras, Jindal was already amending his historic call. Adding more intrigue to the coming political spectacle, at least one old ghost was spotted on the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol, home of the governor's office.

Terry Ryder, formerly the top lawyer for ex-Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, has been roaming around the governor's office in a familiar way, chatting with visiting legislators and helping put out fires sparked by the rookie administration. Ryder's name was noticeably absent from the endless barrage of Jindal Administration press releases announcing appointments and hires, yet there he was, less than a month into Jindal's term, lending his wisdom to the youth and vigor of Jindal's kinderäfig. In all the commotion and general weirdness, Ryder's presence barely garnered a second glance.

Even after the changes were made to Jindal's call last week, many in the House and Senate were left wondering what exactly would be in his legislation, the devil residing comfortably in the details and all. Emails from the administration were sent to lawmakers during the days leading up to the session, asking them to co-author something — anything — in the governor's package. But there was a catch: actual legislation wasn't provided. Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat who serves in Jindal's leadership team as the chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, says many veteran lawmakers were feeling "a bit of trepidation" at this point in the process because no detailed legislation had been brought forth.

Still, many lawmakers expressed faith in Jindal. They hitched their wagons to his sails during last year's election cycle and appeared willing to make huge leaps to stand by him, even if it meant disclosing their sources of income — one of Jindal's crown jewels on ethics reform. "There's some uneasiness out there about the disclosure bill, but it sounds like everyone is in favor of what the governor is trying to do," Gautreaux says.

Another reason Jindal was forced to alter his call was public opinion. In early January, news broke that the new governor had violated state ethics laws by failing to report $118,000 in campaign aid from the state GOP in the required time period. The irony of that news was lost on no one, and no less than three political underlings took responsibility for the error. The latest, Rolfe McCollister Jr., chairman and publisher of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report and Jindal's campaign treasurer, has vowed to personally pay Jindal's anticipated $2,500 fine. (That's the maximum fine allowed under the law; no penalty has officially been handed down by the state Ethics Commission.) McCollister's offer drew second looks, because under current law public officials are allowed to pay ethics fines with their campaign funds, and Jindal has no shortage of cash.

Where the money comes from to pay Jindal's fine will surely be an issue during the special session, and at least one lawmaker thinks Jindal should pony up his own money to pay the fine, should a hearing determine there is one. Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, says he is pushing a bill that would force public officials to pay for ethics violations, including campaign infractions, out of their own pockets. Changing that law would make the system more personal, he argues, adding, "That's the way it should be."

Jindal added the issue to his call on Lundi Gras, and his staffers said it was the right thing to do in light of the new governor's own campaign snafu. House Speaker Pro-tem Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, says she is pushing a similar bill.

Heat from legislators was constant during the week before the session, which officially opened on Sunday (Feb. 10). During a legislative committee hearing last week, lawmakers grilled Jindal's Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Waguespack on the finer points of the financial disclosure bill. Generally, Jindal wants lawmakers to report income and other financial data in broad ranges reaching up to or beyond $200,000. The baseline hope is that requiring disclosure will discourage public officials from taking loot they shouldn't.

The obvious sticking point will be how far down the political food chain the proposed law reaches. When lawmakers got hold of a bill last year requiring them to disclose income, they tacked on local officials and the measure died under its own political weight. More efforts like that are expected in the coming weeks, but some lawmakers may reach even further. For instance, freshman Rep. Joe Harrison, a Napoleonville Democrat, says he is considering legislation or possibly an amendment that would subject members of Louisiana's various boards and commissions to disclosure requirements. He says he's also tinkering with a bill that would require lawmakers to disclose their income sources, but not in a way that would result in personal information becoming public record. "We need to find a way to make this work," Harrison says.

There's another hot issue that might tarnish Jindal's image, and you won't find it in his oft-touted 31-point ethics plan released during his 2007 campaign. It's not a recommendation from his carefully crafted ethics advisory team, either. Part of Jindal's session call seeks to strengthen the state's 11-member Ethics Commission, which investigates ethics and campaign finance disclosure violations and hands out fines. Many people, however, including the board's current chairman and most-recent administrator, believe Jindal's proposal will have the opposite effect. And they're not alone.

'In my opinion, no matter how much success Gov. Jindal might have in passing his proposed new ethics laws, enforcement under his recommendations would be decidedly " stunningly, I would say " weaker," says Shreveport political analyst Elliot Stonecipher, who has become one of the state's leading advocates for reforming the Ethics Board.

Jindal wants to take enforcement powers away from the Ethics Board and allow administrative law judges to conduct closed-door hearings on violations. The board would merely decide which cases to refer to the administrative judges. Some state agencies have long used administrative law judges to resolve legal disputes. But, in the case of ethics and campaign finance, putting violations before closed-door administrative hearings would circumvent public notice, review and discussion — key elements of effective enforcement of ethics and campaign finance laws. It's also unclear who would appoint the judges, although governors typically enjoy wide appointing authority under Louisiana law.

Even more shocking, says Stonecipher, is the lack of attention the call gives to whistleblowers. "There is not even a single item related to increasing the rights and protections of those who file complaints, nor is there any provision for increasing public reporting of unethical behavior, or the highly regarded practice of telephone/Internet hot lines for reporting," Stonecipher says. "Importantly, the governor does not even raise the subject of the board's budget," which would boost its ability to handle more investigations.

Overall, Jindal's final call appears to be a far cry from his promises of transparency and "gold standards" during last year's campaign. Then again, once a bill enters the legislative process, there's no telling what it could come out looking like. No matter what happens during the special session, Jindal's supporters will credit him for trying to do more than any other governor in the area of ethics reform, although critics are already saying it's a hastily thrown together effort.

In his attempt to give voters quick action, Jindal may have reached too far too soon. He could still come out a winner " if he can organize his parade a little better and bring the Legislature into line.

click to enlarge "No matter how much success Gov. Jindal might have in passing his proposed new ethics laws, enforcement under his recommendations would be decidedly  stunningly, I would say  weaker." -  - Elliot Stonecipher, political analyst Photo by Cheryl Gerber - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "No matter how much success Gov. Jindal might have in passing his proposed new ethics laws, enforcement under his recommendations would be decidedly stunningly, I would say weaker."

    Elliot Stonecipher, political analyst Photo by Cheryl Gerber
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