Ethics Board: Fixes still necessary but not coming soon

State ethics officials pushed a limited legislative agenda this year, but even that scaled-down approach got no where.

No bills were filed, although Louisiana Ethics Board members says they sought legislative fixes from the Legislature’s leaders and from Gov. Bobby Jindal. Some of the measures that did get filed in the 2013 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature are contrary to the recommendations the Ethics Board had established.

The Ethics Board asked for help with a handful of challenges it continues to encounter in enforcement of conflict of interest, nepotism and campaign finance laws.

Some of the disputes have led to lawsuits and others concern about creating some big holes that could allow ethical misconduct.

Ethics Board Chairman Blake Monrose said more and more issues have come up with the board’s interpretation of laws.

“We wanted them to give us some help,” said Monrose. “We can just proceed with what we have, what’s there now and what we have to go by” until the Legislature steps in or courts clarify problem areas.

Among the issues:

What information ethics attorneys must disclose to those accused of wrongdoing.

Who is a “public employee” for purposes of the ethics code.

What constitutes prohibited personal use of campaign funds.

Jindal, who early in his first term made ethics a top priority, did not include any of the items on his legislative agenda.

“The Ethics Board met with us before session and informed us they had legislators who would be filing bills to address their priorities,” Jindal said in a statement released by his office. “We committed to working with those legislators on their bills as they make their way through the process.”

State Rep. Tim Burns, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs committee that oversees ethics issues, said the Ethics Board sent a letter detailing its concerns.

“You don’t write a letter and expect a bill to be drafted,” said Burns, R-Mandeville. “They need to reach out. There’s a lot of demand on legislators. You have to have authors (of legislation) you can work with and you can make your case to.”

State Sen. Jody Amedee, Burns’ upper-chamber counterpart as chair of the state Senate and Governmental Affairs committee, said legislators were limited to five general interest bills during the 2013 session, which is mainly focused on tax and spending issues. “We need to make some changes, but with all our budget problems I didn’t focus on it a lot this year,” he said.

For instance, the Gonzales Republican says he wants a legislative study of the personal use of campaign funds.

“It needs to be defined,” Amedee said. “I don’t think people should be living off of their campaign accounts.”

What constitutes personal use of campaign funds has been the subject of a lawsuit as the Ethics Board’s interpretation came under challenge when it attempted to levy penalties against Baton Rouge Mayor President Kip Holden.

The board created a committee to look at the issue and develop guidelines but held off moving forward with to see if the Legislature would act. Any guidelines would be subject to legislative approval.

Legislation filed in the House and Senate attempts to exempt from ethics laws engineers, architects, certified public accountants and landscape architects who have contracts to do public work.

The Ethics Board, however, has recommended considering circumstances, instead of exempting entire categories of professions.

The relationship and responsibility to the governmental agency should be the test, said Kathleen Allen, the state’s ethics administrator.

“The Board is of the opinion that such a distinction based solely on profession is not a sound reasoning and could lead to evisceration of the application of the code to those acting on behalf of the governmental entity, albeit on a contractual basis,” Allen wrote in a letter to Jindal and legislative leaders.

State law defines a “public employee” as including those “engaged in the performance of a governmental function.” The board suggested that those terms be better defined.

The Ethics Board got nowhere in its quest to get a state law changed to protect from disclosure to those accused of ethics law violations the transcript and recordings of executive sessions as well as the board’s investigative report, notes of the investigator and attorneys. The board argues they are confidential and privileged.