The Louisiana Board of Ethics refused Friday to answer a myriad of questions about when architects or engineers on government projects become public employees subject to state conflict of interest, nepotism and other ethics laws.
“I think you are trying to get us to give a blanket exemption that the Legislature wouldn’t give you,” Ethics Board chairman Blake Monrose told attorneys seeking the advice.
Monrose said the board has provided guidance in past advisory opinion involving particular cases which architects and engineers can use as they consider their role. But the “nebulous questions” presented to the board look like “a trap,” he said.
The board offered, and attorneys representing the professional groups agreed, to come back with examples of contracts so the board can better assess the role architects, engineers and others play in them and whether they by virtue of the contract requirements become a public employee.
State ethics officials have been struggling of late on the issue of just when employees of a private company become public employees for purposes of compliance with the laws under its jurisdiction. A number of professional groups, including architects, engineers and contractors, sought exemptions from the ethics code during the 2013 legislative session. Legislators refused.
Under current law, a public employee subject to the ethics code is defined as anyone, whether compensated or not, who is engaged in the performance of a government function.
Steven Loeb, general counsel for the American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana, submitted 18 questions to the board involving how ethics laws apply to engineers and architects.
Loeb said members of his organization are trying to comply with the law.
“Our goal is to educate our membership. …I f they are to be considered public employees to follow the code and not unintentionally violate the law,” Loeb said.
Monrose said the ethics board must have facts. “We can’t say anybody working for an engineer or architect is or is not” a public employee, he said. “You need to look at the job you are doing … I don’t see how you think we are going to answer these nebulous questions you ask.”
Attorney Scott Frazier, representing the Associated General Contractors, argued that — in general — architects, engineers, contractors and the like do not become public employees. “The sovereign authority of the state has not been ceded,” said Frazier, a former ethics board member.
But Monrose said the board needs “factual scenarios” to determine the roles people play.
“Give us a case,” Ethics Board member Jean Ingrassia said. “Why are you working so hard to be exempt from the ethics code?”
“The ethics code was never intended to sweep up people and make them public employees just because they have a contract with a public body,” Frazier said.