The Louisiana Board of Ethics has the legal authority to enter into agreements settling alleged conflict of interest, nepotism and other violations, according to a recent Attorney General’s Office opinion.
The Ethics Board had voted last spring to seek the attorney general’s advice on its practice of entering into consent opinions that settle before the cases go to judicial hearings. The opinion is a signed document, in which an individual voluntarily admits to a violation and agrees to a certain penalty.
The board wanted to know whether its role had changed with the creation of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, which took over judicial responsibilities with a 2008 law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The law left the Ethics Board with investigatory and prosecutorial powers.
Then-Ethics Board Chairman Frank Simoneaux had argued that consent opinions legally speaking were adjudications and the law turned those over to the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, or EAB.
The Ethics Board signs off on two or three such agreements each month.
In an opinion issued earlier this month, Assistant Attorney General Charles W. Belsom Jr. wrote that the 2008 law change now directs that “the board shall consider offering a consent opinion to each person who is the subject of an investigation.”
Belsom wrote that neither the ethics code nor the administrative procedures act specify who has the authority to sign a consent opinion.
However, he continued, “The plain language of Act 23 limits the jurisdiction of the EAB to hearings on alleged ethics violations.”
By their nature, there is no hearing on matters on which a consent opinion is reached, Belsom wrote. “Absent a hearing, the EAB has no role in proceedings arising from alleged ethics violations,” he advised. “It necessarily follows that the EAB would have no jurisdiction to sign a consent opinion, and that the authority to sign consent opinions remains with the Board of Ethics” pursuant to law.
It would also make no sense for the EAB to consider the fairness of the penalty imposed because it would not have had knowledge of the alleged violation or the circumstances since no hearing would have been held, Belsom opined.
He concluded that the Ethics Board has the authority “to approve and perfect a binding consent opinion with a person who has allegedly violated laws under the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics, and has the authority to sign that consent opinion without the concurrence of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board.”
Chief ethics administrator Kathleen Allen welcomed the legal opinion.
“If anyone would question the authority of the board, it makes it clear that the board is well within its authority to enter into and execute consent opinions,” Allen said Monday.