A state Senate panel Wednesday advanced a three-bill package pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to correct problems that have hindered the enforcement of state ethics and campaign finance laws.
The legislation addresses legal and administrative disputes that have cropped up since the 2008 passage of Jindal-pushed legislation. The 2008 laws gave the Louisiana Board of Ethics the authority to investigate and prosecute cases. The laws also spun-off the judicial function to newly formed Ethics Adjudicatory Board, called EAB.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the three House-passed measures without objection.
House Bill 952 would give the Ethics Board the authority to appeal decisions of the EAB, when questions dealing with the interpretation of law are involved. The Ethics Board would have to unanimously vote to appeal EAB decisions and pay attorney fees for the other party if it loses the appeal. The panel expanded attorney fee coverage to include the EAB defense as well.
House Bill 950 would clarify the powers and duties of the two boards. Current law often mentions “the board” without specifying which one.
The legislation also would remove the current one-year limit to investigate a complaint in instances when the target of the investigation impedes its progress.
House Bill 955 would spell out the role of the Ethics Board and the EAB in enforcement of state campaign finance laws. Questions had arisen over levying of fines, collection efforts as well as appeals.
All three bills were sponsored by state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, and now head to the Senate floor for debate.
Most of the committee discussion occurred over giving the Ethics Board the limited right to appeal EAB decisions.
“It’s a very limited and extraordinary right,” said Burns. He said it is warranted because “we don’t want bad law or errors in law ... There was a need to make sure law dealing with ethics administration was consistent.”
The Ethics Board has disagreed with EAB legal interpretations in a series of cases but has not been able to do anything about the disagreements. The EAB has either dismissed cases or found no violations in some cases in decisions that run counter to Ethics Board policing of the laws for years.
State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, questioned the fairness of the appeal when the accused has been found not to have violated laws but must continue a defense in a court.
“It feels like it’s double jeopardy,” said Donahue. “As a legislator I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place.”
State Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, said he was concerned about the costs an individual would bear in defending himself not just in appeal cases but during Ethics Board investigations. Tarver wanted the Ethics Board to cover attorney fees for the individual when charges are dismissed.
“You have humiliated this guy, he’s going to be on the front page of the paper ... and you are going to say ‘thank you for coming.’ That’s not good enough,” said Tarver.
Jindal’s executive counsel, Elizabeth Murrill, opposed the move. “This is a dramatic change in the way things are done today. There would be a very large fiscal note associated with the amendment,” said Murrill.
“We can’t do this. This would have a real chilling effect on this whole process,” said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans.
Tarver dropped the effort.