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A $55,112 Question

Will the Louisiana Ethics Commission try to force the new chair of a Senate committee on ethics legislation to pay up to $55,112 in penalties for his own campaign finance violations -- under a tough law the senator himself helped to pass in 2001? Or will the ethics board close the books on state Sen. Charles "C.D." Jones, D-Monroe, after he finally paid off $6,620 in fines the day after his appointment as chair of Senate and Governmental Affairs?

Jones, an attorney first elected to the Legislature as a state representative in 1980, did not return calls for comment for this story. But Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, defends his Jan. 14 appointment of Jones, who as chair of Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will oversee all ethics and campaign finance legislation in the upper chamber. "He's been on the committee for 12 years and he has served in a very professional and efficient manner," Hines says.

Asked about Jones' history of infractions with the ethics board, including nine fines for late filings of campaign finance disclosure reports and a $7,500 penalty he paid for a conflict-of-interest violation in 1998, Hines says he was "unaware" of the latter complaint, which was reported by the Associated Press' Adam Nossiter on the day Hines promoted Jones to the senate chair.

Hines downplays the nine separate fines his colleague owed the ethics board since 2000 for failure to timely file campaign finance reports. "He said it was an oversight on his part. ... He has paid the fine and paid the penalty and, as he tells me, the problem is resolved."

Jones made his final payment of $2,000 (for a report due before the October 2003 election) on Jan. 15, the day after the AP reported his Senate appointment. On Jan. 7, Jones paid the board $4,620 following a Gambit Weekly editorial that mentioned his longstanding fines ("Blanco's Ethical Opportunity," Dec. 30, 2003). Maris LeBlanc, deputy general counsel for the ethics board, says late campaign report filings are a violation of the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, which is administratively enforced by the ethics panel.

Gray Sexton, chief administrator and an attorney for the ethics board, declined to say whether the board would push for additional penalties against Jones under Act 1208, a tough law that the Senate (including Jones) passed by a 35-0 vote in 2001.

Act 1208 bans candidates and their campaigns from spending campaign contributions while they owe fines imposed by a final order of a court or the state ethics board. Violators "may be assessed a civil penalty not to exceed 200 percent of the expenditure or $1,000, whichever is greater."

Last Aug. 21, Jones was re-elected without opposition. He failed to meet the Sept. 4 deadline for filing his campaign finance disclosure report. At the time, Jones' fines exceeded $5,000.

In September, LeBlanc told Gambit Weekly that the panel would need to see Jones' campaign report to determine if he had violated Act 1208 by spending campaign contributions while owing fines to the board ("Feeling Fines," Sept. 30, 2003). But Jones did not file the report the board needed until Dec. 23, 2003 -- 110 days late. The report shows Jones spent $27,556 between Jan. 31, 2003 and Aug. 25, 2003 to get re-elected without opposition. A 200 percent maximum fine under Act 1208 would make the senator subject to fines of up to $55,112.

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