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Wanted: Real Ethics Reform 

Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal campaigned on the theme of ethics reform, and he is poised to deliver on his promise of a special session early in his tenure devoted entirely to that subject. We support Jindal's efforts to clean up Louisiana's image as a corrupt political backwater, but we caution that real ethics reform will have to include more than just feel-good, cosmetic changes to our state's ethics code. To be sure, we need laws to bar lawmakers and their immediate families from doing business with the state. We also need tighter restrictions on campaign finance and lobbyist disclosure. But if Louisiana really wants to send a signal to the world that we have mended our ways, then Jindal and the new Legislature should focus on enforcement of our improved ethics laws. The Louisiana Ethics Board is nominally responsible for investigating alleged ethical infractions by state and local officials and for enforcing state ethics laws. However, over the course of the 40-plus years that the board has been in existence, it has never had any kind of criminal jurisdiction. Moreover, its civil authority has been used sparingly at best, perhaps due partly to it being underfunded by governors and legislatures for years. Indeed, the fact that the state ethics administration has to go to the Legislature to beg for enough money to operate undercuts the agency's ability to independently investigate legislative or gubernatorial transgressions.

Case in point: former Gov. Mike Foster 'purchased" voter lists from neo-Nazi and former Klan leader David Duke in 1995 in a transaction that was quite obviously a sham. Foster used one of his companies to pay Duke some $150,000 for the lists but never used them. He then failed to report the 'purchase" on his campaign finance reports. Duke opted out of the 1995 governor's race and threw his support to Foster, giving him a significant boost at a pivotal moment in the campaign. The Foster-Duke payments came to light long after they were made. The ethics board investigation, pursuant to state law, was conducted in secret. Only the board's final action against Foster " a wrist-slapping $20,000 fine " was made public. Foster remains the only governor ever fined by the ethics board, but the panel's weak-kneed handling of the Foster-Duke affair points up most if not all of the flaws in Louisiana's ethics administration.

'Louisiana's political and governmental corruption is the logical result of our state's entire history of functioning without a "sheriff' in the context of ethics reform," says Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport political analyst who has studied this issue for years. 'When "bad guys' gather 'round in Louisiana to further corrupt enterprises, they well understand that unless and until they attract the attention of a U. S. Attorney " which is almost never " and are actually indicted and/or prosecuted, they run little risk of being caught or punished."

The weaknesses in the current system are apparent:

The ethics board is not independent. It depends on the good graces of a governor and state lawmakers for its budget, which puts the board at a political and structural disadvantage. Jindal and lawmakers should fix this by giving the ethics board a dedicated, constitutionally protected source of revenue. In addition, the agency must be funded at a level that allows it to investigate and enforce Louisiana's ethics laws thoroughly.

The ethics code should include criminal penalties for violations of the most important laws. Legislators can pass all the ethics laws they want, but if those laws don't put violators in danger of going to jail, they will amount to little more than window dressing.

The ethics board should have its own independent authority to initiate criminal prosecutions for ethics law violations. This will require giving the board and its prosecutorial arm original jurisdiction in matters involving criminal violations of the ethics code. As presently constituted, the board can refer suspected criminal violations to local district attorneys or other law enforcement agencies. However, not once in recent years has the board done so. In fact, local DAs who want to sweep their allies' political corruption under the rug often refer cases to the ethics board " knowing full well that next to nothing will happen.

The board's investigations must become matters of public record earlier in the process. Otherwise, as has been the case in the past, the board will serve more as a whitewashing mechanism than a watchdog. One of the fundamental tenets of strong ethics laws is disclosure. For the state's ethics enforcers to operate in secrecy is a slap in the face of open government.

We believe Jindal is sincere in his desire to clean up Louisiana's image. We therefore urge him to include in his special legislative session on ethics reform a set of bills designed to put some teeth into the law " and into the board that is charged with enforcing it.


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