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Coal Mine Canaries 

When lawyers who run for office also run afoul of campaign finance laws, it's often a harbinger of more serious trouble.

What a difference a year makes, especially with a wholesale change of public officials. A year ago this month, Henry C. Perret Jr., chair of the Louisiana Board of Ethics, drew up a letter listing proposals for revising the state ethics code, following the panel's first-ever public "Ethics Symposium." On April 2, 2007, Perret dutifully mailed the board's recommendations to the governor and the Legislature, including state Sen. Charles D. Jones, D-Monroe, arguably a "deadbeat" lawyer with a history of skirting state campaign finance laws. Jones now faces federal charges of criminal tax evasion.

In January 2004, then-Senate President Donald Hines appointed Jones as chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. During the ensuing four years, Jones presided over all ethics legislation in the Upper Chamber.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco stood by the political heavyweight, ignoring editorial warnings of the senator's prolific violations of state ethics laws and his two earlier suspensions from the practice of law in the 1990s. The ethics board fined him 10 times in six years, mostly for late filings of campaign reports — civil violations of the state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act. The ethics board then failed to pursue Jones for up to $55,112 in possible fines under a tough campaign finance law that Jones himself helped shepherd through the Senate in 2001.

The senator's shortcomings competed for headlines with remarks by his counterpart in the House, state Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, who chaired the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Lancaster famously protested a proposed $100 limit on free tickets for politicos wanting to attend LSU sporting events, arguing that such a cap "basically prohibits you from sitting anywhere you can see the game."

Jones' dodging of campaign finance reporting laws resulted only in civil penalties, but signaled more trouble ahead. He was forced out of office by term limits on Jan. 14. Ten days later, a federal grand jury in Shreveport indicted him on criminal tax evasion charges. The alleged irregularities date to 1995. Jones, who first won elected office as a state representative in 1980 before moving to the Senate in 1992, predicts acquittal. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Jones' legal troubles are no surprise in Baton Rouge, where warning flags flew over his head for at least a decade. "These (state) ethics violations are similar to a canary in a coal mine," says C.B. Forgotston, a former general counsel to the House Appropriations Committee. "They are harbingers of deeper problems."

One year after Perret's letter, Gov. Bobby Jindal says Louisiana has set a national "gold standard" for governmental ethics. The recent legislative passage of a raft of new laws is aimed at reversing the state's historic image of corruption and self-dealing. With qualifying for courthouse elections all over the state now less than five months away, however, the ethics board is still struggling to collect $840,000 in fines from nearly 300 politicians and political action committees for violations of state campaign finance laws.

A Gambit Weekly survey shows that lawyers account for the three biggest ethics fines. In fact, as the first full day of Jindal's special session on ethics got underway on Feb. 11, our survey found that 35 Louisiana lawyers — both active and inactive — accounted for more than $212,000 in fines, roughly 25 percent of what's owed.

Gambit Weekly used several sources to identify the 35 lawyers on the "Outstanding Fines" hyperlink of the board of ethics Web site. Among our findings:

Three New Orleans area lawyers topped the list of the biggest unpaid fines. Three area attorneys were elected officials; one has since paid up.

Roughly one-third of the 35 lawyers practiced in the metro area.

Almost half of the attorneys listed owed fines from failed judicial campaigns. None were sitting judges, though one former judge is in federal prison.

Chuck Plattsmier, chief disciplinary counsel to the Louisiana Supreme Court, says as many as 20 of the 35 lawyers on our list "probably never had a complaint filed" against them with the Louisiana State Bar Association. "A handful had some prior disciplinary charges," says Plattsmier, who prosecutes violations of lawyer misconduct for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC). "Others have disciplinary charges having nothing to do with campaign finance issues."

Nearly half of all Louisiana lawyer misconduct cases involve alcohol, drugs, gambling and, increasingly since Katrina, depression.

Newly hired New Orleans Inspector General Robert Cerasoli expressed shock at the $840,000 sum and suggested that such a high total for campaign finance violations would not be found in his native Massachusetts. "Absolutely not!" Cerasoli said.

'It's a big flaw in the system when the board that polices ethics rules and penalties seems unable to collect such a large amount," agreed Barry Erwin, executive director of the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL). "Sometimes people don't take these things seriously."

Lawyers should not be part of the state's collection problems, says Erwin, who also is a member of an advisory panel to the Louisiana Supreme Court on protecting the integrity of judicial elections.

Many nonlawyer candidates are unaware of campaign finance laws, which impose daily fees for late campaign disclosure filings. Such fines add up quickly. "However, if you are talking about attorneys who are supposed to understand the law, I don't think ignorance of the law is a very good excuse," Erwin says.

The ethics board's new administrator, attorney Richard Sherburne, says he is working to improve the fine-collection process. But his staff of 21 (including seven lawyers) has just been saddled with additional regulatory duties as result of the new ethics laws.

'You can certainly look at the numbers and know that we can do a better job, and that is what we're working on developing — along with all these other [laws] that have been added to our plate in the last three months since I got here," says Sherburne, who previously worked in the state attorney general's office.

Some campaign fines date back 15 years, though the oldest we found for a lawyer was 10 years old. Assisted by the AG's office, the ethics board is trying to determine who on its list of fines is dead or bankrupt and who is still in Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

'That is a very real problem for us — and it's not just lawyers," Sherburne said.

Shreveport analyst Elliot Stonecipher says our findings suggest that, absent any major enforcement efforts, Jindal's ethics reforms will amount to "an empty suit."

Three New Orleans area lawyers topped the list of the biggest unpaid fines. They also are among nine attorneys statewide whose cases have been turned over to the attorney general's office for collection:

Albert I. "Al" Donovan, who once served as executive counsel to then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, owes $39,500 for failing to file six disclosure reports from his unsuccessful 2003 campaign for Secretary of State. Donovan does not dispute his fines, the largest in Louisiana. Admitted to the bar in 1986, he practices in Jefferson Parish.

Donald Ray Pryor, an unsuccessful candidate for New Orleans City Council in 2002, owes $32,700 for one late report and failure to file five reports. "I've got my people working on it; it's almost resolved," Pryor told Gambit. He was admitted to the bar in 1987. The Louisiana Supreme Court suspended Pryor from the practice of law for two years in 2004, after a disciplinary investigation into 22 allegations of lawyer misconduct while representing defendants in criminal cases in New Orleans during the late 1990s. "Taken as a whole, the record demonstrated that [Pryor's] misconduct is negligent rather than intentional and stemmed in large measure from poor office management skills," the Supreme Court opined.

Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who is up for re-election to a third four-year term this fall, owes $30,640 for several late reports and failure to file seven disclosure reports since he was first elected in 2000. Fahrenholtz acknowledges owing the fines and has offered various reasons over the years for nonpayment, including miscommunication with the ethics board. After garnishing Fahrenholtz's school board salary and suing him in two jurisdictions, the ethics board has turned collection efforts over to the state attorney general.

Admitted to the state bar in 1996, Fahrenholtz has been on "inactive" status as an attorney since 2005. He now faces two charges filed earlier this year by the ODC, including failure to cooperate with ODC inquiries into "repeated failures to file statutorily required campaign finance disclosure reports." While inactive attorneys may not practice law in Louisiana, they still must follow the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys — and they remain subject to disciplinary action by the ODC.

In addition to Fahrenholtz, two other elected officials/lawyers owed fines to the board of ethics during the recent legislative session on ethics — and one is a state representative.

State Rep. Charmaine L. Marchand, D-New Orleans, who was admitted to the bar in 2000, owed $1,800 for filing a report 30 days late in connection with her successful Oct. 20, 2007, re-election campaign. "Those fines have already been satisfied," Marchand says.

Ethics board attorney Alesia Ardoin, however, said Marchand's late fees remained "outstanding." Effective March 30, certain fines must be paid with personal funds, ethics officials say.

Louella Givens of Mandeville, who represents the New Orleans area as an elected member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, owed more than $14,000 in February but has since paid up, officials say.

Meanwhile, New Orleans lawyer Errol J. Ware, who ran for judge in 2000 and 2001, owes $20,200 for five late reports and a sixth report that was never filed, according to ethics board records. Ware disputes the fines. "I resolved it a long time ago," says Ware, a lawyer in Louisiana since 1974. Ethics board attorney Ardoin says the board has never been able to locate Ware to serve him with a subpoena.

'Service of process" on malingerers is a key, time-consuming step toward obtaining a court-ordered judgment for payment. "We have a substantial number of people that we are having trouble getting service on to get a judgment," ethics board administrator Sherburne says.

Meanwhile, several of the 35 delinquent lawyers now face charges before the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, including Fahrenholtz, former Bogalusa City Council member Barry W. Bolton and Baton Rouge lawyer Darryl L. Robertson.

Elsewhere, New Orleans area lawyer Curklin Atkins still owes $3,900 in fines from a 2002 campaign for judge of Criminal Court. He is seeking reinstatement to the bar following a three-year suspension for multiple violations of bar rules.

Former Jefferson Parish Judge Alan Green, meanwhile, owed a $4,000 fine for failure to file a campaign report last year in connection with his 2002 campaign.

Gambit Weekly has raised questions (unanswered by press time) as to whether Green should have been fined in the first place. He was convicted of federal mail fraud in June 2005 and incarcerated in a Texas prison when the ethics board scheduled a hearing in his case last year. He voluntarily resigned from the practice of law in 2006 and has been permanently prohibited from practicing law in Louisiana or any other jurisdiction.

Richard C. Bates, a former Jefferson Parish prosecutor, ran for Green's vacant seat on the 24th Judicial District Court in 2006. Bates, then a resident of Metairie, lost the race and later moved to New Iberia. He now owes $2,600 for filing two late reports, including one that was 148 days late. On Feb. 13, the Louisiana Supreme Court placed Bates on an emergency suspension after the ODC charged him with professional misconduct violations ranging from forgery to deceiving his clients in both civil and criminal cases. He was admitted to the practice of law in 1989. He could not be reached for comment.

Former Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yvonne L. Hughes, who was kicked off the bench and then disbarred, still owes the state $5,400 in fines for campaign reporting violations related to her failed Oct. 5, 2002, run for state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Her last payment of ethics board fines was Dec. 8, 2002. A native of Michigan, Hughes was admitted to the practice of law in Louisiana in 1982. She was permanently removed from the bench in 2004 and disbarred as an attorney on May 11, 2007.

Hughes first won election to Juvenile Court in 2000, after Gambit Weekly reported that her $49,000 in fines from 16 previous campaigns was the highest in Louisiana. News of her election and high fines made The New York Times, but it didn't stop her from winning her first election. At the time, unpaid campaign fines from all candidates barely topped $150,000. By 2003, the figure for all candidates hit $1 million. The Ethics Board then hired Ardoin to get control of fine collections, which has not dropped below $825,000 in the five years since then.

Last summer, then-Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr.'s office signed an agreement with the board to collect outstanding fines for 25 percent of collections. Serving legal papers on violators remains a problem, however, even with some lawyers.

Plattsmier says his office receives more than 3,000 unwritten complaints of lawyer misconduct a year. His office considers only the most serious campaign reporting violations. "If [the campaign report] is late, it's really of no moment to me," he says. " If it's misfiled, the same. But if you lie, that's of great interest to me."

The ODC chief estimates that half of lawyer misconduct cases in Louisiana involve alcohol, drugs or gambling. Depression is a "growing problem," which the bar association tries to address with a confidential assistance program. "The impossible task is getting hard data, since many lawyers we investigate and prosecute often deny that their alcohol intake is a problem — and almost none admit to drug use," Plattsmier says. "I've actually had one lawyer who resigned from the practice of law rather than quit drinking bourbon for breakfast!"

At least one of the 35 lawyers fined by the ethics board is ready to argue his case at the board's monthly public hearing this Thursday (April 10) in Baton Rouge. Douglas D. McGinity, who ran in a special election in March 2007 for judge of New Orleans Civil District Court, owes $7,900 for three late reports and a fourth report he never filed, according to ethics board records.

McGinity disagrees. "Every report was filed," he says. "My late fine for filing was $2,500. I fully intend to pay it."

Paying a hefty fine for a losing campaign is a bitter pill — and should serve as a warning to other candidates in the fall elections. "I was putting signs out myself," McGinity recalls glumly. "My opponents raised a quarter of a million dollars."

Attorney Philip Charles Brickman, also of New Orleans, did not contest his $460 fine for three late reports from his March 2007 race in state House District 94.

'I was doing all my reporting myself," Brickman recalls. "I was naive and a previously untested political candidate. Thank you, Gambit, for reminding me!"

Brickman paid his fine March 14.

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