Inside Report: Lawmakers add new ethics exceptions

State Sen. Karen Peterson took a walk down memory lane recently.

Peterson thought back to 2008 to recall when a new governor pushed ethics “cleanup” legislation to improve the state’s national image.

Gov. Bobby Jindal campaigned on wanting to move government away from the old way — it’s who you know — to a new way: It’s what you know. He wanted laws that banned special treatment and exceptions.

Using his honeymoon power from the first weeks as governor, Jindal pressured legislators into passing new ethics laws.

It moved so fast in a specially called session that bills in later sessions were submitted to make some fixes. Along the way, some legislators inserted provisions that would seem to fly in the face of Jindal’s campaign promises. Jindal signed bills that gave special permission for three legislators and their relatives to do things otherwise prohibited.

“There were a lot of exceptions put in it,” said Peterson, speaking of the revamping of the ethics revamp. She didn’t mention who benefited from the exceptions to which Jindal agreed.

But one provision allowed Chris John, chief of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, to lobby a Legislature that included his father-in-law, state Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville. Smith served on the legislative committee that oversees energy industry activities.

Another exception helped then-state Sen. Noble Ellington keep his wife as his paid legislative assistant. Yet another exception allowed former state Rep. Rick Nowlin’s engineering firm to keep doing business with governmental entities.

Fast-forward to 2014.

It was another exception for a legislator’s relative that prompted Peterson to take to the Senate microphone. Republican state Sen. Jody Amedee, of Gonzales, told senators that House Bill 459 is similar to the earlier exceptions approved for immediate family members of legislators that prevent them from violating conflict of interest laws.

Senators had before them a House-passed bill written specifically to allow the brother of state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, to lobby the Legislature. The brother is former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier, who is a registered lobbyist for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association. Heitmeier’s name is never mentioned, but lawmakers had no doubt to whom the description in the bill alluded.

“Why do we need to do this now?” Peterson asked. “What distinguishes this situation from any other?”

“There are a lot of different factors and circumstances,” said Amedee, who was handling the bill.

“I don’t know what distinguishes one member of this body from another,” Peterson continued. “Why don’t we just get rid of the law?”

Peterson proposed repeal of the entire immediate family prohibition “so any senator, any House member who has an immediate family member that wants to lobby you then can lobby.” Peterson only got four votes for her repeal attempt. She didn’t vote for her own amendment.

“It was a bad amendment because nobody wants us to open up what we voted on in 2008. It doesn’t make sense,” Peterson said. “It’s not good public policy. … It is not in the best interest of what we do here.”

People who elected the senators and representatives want to know that “there’s no personal gain associated with what we do,” Peterson said, making her point.

The state Senate then voted to grant the Heitmeier exception, sending HB459 to the governor’s desk for action.

The Senate roll call was 20 for and 8 against. Eleven senators — nearly 30 percent of the upper chamber — did not vote, including Sen. Heitmeier.

Earlier during the session, the Louisiana House passed the exception on a 58-26 vote. Twenty-one representatives did not vote, which is 20 percent of the 105-member House. Enough voted to pass the measure, but more than a few legislators seemed to have heartburn over having this vote documented.

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, had said he filed the bill to help Heitmeier.

“So you just have to ask and you get an exception?” Peterson asked Amedee.

“I don’t know about that. If someone files a bill and it’s approved, you get one,” Amedee said.

Jindal opened the door and set the precedent. Now the argument is what’s fair for one is fair for another in the legislative arena.

Marsha Shuler covers ethics for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mshuler@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB.