Wednesday, July 2, 2008

New ethics law bites hard in Louisiana

I'm absolutely delighted to be able to tell you that the new ethics laws in Louisiana are biting very hard indeed.

This State has long been a by-word for political corruption, nepotism and inefficiency. Newly-elected Governor Bobby Jindal campaigned on a promise of government reform, and despite a few mis-steps while he finds his feet, he's moving ahead briskly with his changes. One of them has been sweeping ethics reforms, requiring any member of any administrative or oversight board to disclose his or her financial particulars - including any money earned by contracting with the State or State agencies.

Needless to say, this has led to a panicked rush of resignations from all sorts of boards as the deadline - July 1st - approached. News reports all over Louisiana tell the same story.

In Shreveport:

Local government boards are short several members this morning because of a new state law.

Midnight on Monday marked the deadline for certain elected and appointed officials to resign if they do not want to publicly disclose their personal income under Gov. Bobby Jindal's sweeping ethics rules. Anyone in those positions today must report their and their spouse's business interests by May. Exactly what they must show depends on the position.

That led to at least four local resignations Monday — three from Shreveport's Downtown Development Authority and one from the Caddo Levee District. It could leave many boards in disarray until spots are filled.

. . .

Some consider the financial reporting an invasion of privacy. But quick decisions were necessary. Jindal just signed the bill into law late last week.

"I think it caught a lot of people unaware," said Shreveport City Attorney Terri Scott. "It very well has the potential to make some people say, 'It's not worth it.'"

Downtown Development Authority Director Don Shea said he already knew what would happen. DDA board members are not paid and agree to serve only because they care about improving downtown, he said.

If Shea loses one more person from the seven-member board, which he expects to happen, the board will not have enough members for a quorum to vote.

In Baton Rouge, the State capital:

Resignation notices from members of state boards and commissions flowed into the secretary of state's office by the score on Monday as the July 1 starting date approached for newly required financial disclosures for public officials across Louisiana.

In all, more than 120 appointed members of various boards or offices had filed their resignations by the close of business Monday. Two members of the Tangipahoa Parish School Board were the only elected officials to resign.

. . .

A few boards appear to have taken a large hit of departures.

Ten of the 11 members of the Board of Ethics have left their seats, most departing along with the ethics administrator in a mass exodus last Thursday.

. . .

The Millennium Port Authority and the New Orleans City Park Improvement Board each lost six members. The Louisiana State Arts Council had 11 resignations and the Louisiana Geographic Information Systems Council saw eight departures.

Other boards with multiple resignations included the Louisiana Education Television Authority, the Emergency Response Network Board and the Garden District Security District. Clifford Smith resigned from the Board of Regents.

In Central Louisiana, where I live:

Two Central Louisiana organizations have been left without boards and a few others with empty seats in the wake of Senate Bill 718 -- a piece of legislation that on Tuesday enacted stiffer financial disclosure laws on certain boards and commissions in the state.

Gone are all of the board members for the Alexandria/Pineville-Area Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as the Alexandria Central Economic Development District.

Only two board members remain out of seven for the Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority. And the Alexandria Port Authority is left with five of its eight members. Other boards that lost members include Kisatchie-Delta (7), the local Workforce Investment Board (6) and the Rapides Area Planning Commission (6).

Members left their respective boards to avoid disclosing financial information about not only themselves but also their spouses. Information sought included occupation and interest/association with businesses. Income specifics would be required only if the money came from state or local government or from gambling interests.

The majority of resignations came close to the deadline -- 11:59 p.m. on Monday. In all, more than 200 board members or commissioners in the state opted to step down.

Parish and/or city boards or commissions were excluded from the added disclosure regulations.

The mass resignations did not deter the mind-set of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"We are confident that there will be no shortage of qualified, talented Louisianans wanting to serve their state on a board or commission, even with the ethics standards overwhelmingly approved in the first special session," Jindal wrote in a statement e-mailed to The Town Talk.

I'm delighted to see so many ducking for cover - and enthusiastic about the prospects for getting some real change in local and regional government and administration. For decades, nepotism, corruption and the 'old boy network' have crippled this State and prevented it growing. I fully support Governor Jindal's ethics reforms, and I hope they're the first step in changing the political culture that's been entrenched here for far, far too long. I'm pleased to see that he's already vetoed three bills that would have watered down his reforms.

The new ethics and disclosure laws have teeth, too. Fines of up to $10,000 may be imposed for non-disclosure of financial assets and relevant transactions. I find it particularly telling that the vast majority of the State Ethics Board - which is responsible for investigating breaches of the new rules - have resigned. That makes me very happy!

As one commentator pointed out:

The late Sen. B.B. "Sixty" Rayburn, when he was serving in the Legislature, often quoted Gov. Earl Long as saying, "One of the days people are going to get good government, and they're not going to like it."

Well, I like it! Bring it on, Governor Jindal! Let's have more of the same!



Andrew said...


To be fair, I can understand genuine anxiety from some officials - If I were them, I would not be keen to publicly disclose my financial details either, and they do have a certain right to privacy.

However, they must expect that in their positions, they must be publicly accountable, and that accountability will impinge on their privacy in some areas.

I'm not familiar with the Louisiana situation, but in general, there has to be a fair balance between public accountability and privacy protection.

Also, if the bill was signed into just late last week, then it seems a little sudden to make the deadline July 1st. Perhaps more time should have been given so as to avoid unnecessary disruption to the effective administration of the boards concerned.



Peter said...

Andrew, the deadline's been known since the legislation was introduced early this year. It only got signed into law last week because of a determined rearguard action by the 'old guard', who didn't want to see the veil of concealment stripped from their long-entrenched corruption.

No, the Board members can't plead short notice or lack of understanding. This has been coming for months. They're simply using the late signing as a convenient excuse to make themselves look better in the eyes of the voters.

A plague on the lot of 'em!

Anonymous said...

They shouldn't replace the folks who resigned. The citizens will find they can function just fine without excessive layers of bureaucrats!


Rogue Medic said...

I have never been that trusting of those who claim to be there to judge the ethics of others. It is not terribly surprising that the ethics board seems to have one of the highest rates of resignation among those listed.

Old lawyer joke - A man leaves a consultation. The fee was $10,000. The lawyer opens the envelope containing cash and sees $20,000. For the lawyer, the ethical question is, "Do I tell my partner?"

gator said...

I too have high hopes for Louisiana under the leadership of Governor Jindal. That's one reason that I sorta hope he's not McCain's VP choice. There's plenty of clean-up work to do there in the Bayou State, and I might want to move back home someday.

Dave said...

Rock. On.