Jindal's First Hiccup

Talk about ironic timing. Just weeks before Gov. Bobby Jindal commences his long-awaited special session on ethics reform, team Jindal gets hit for not accurately reporting more than $100,000 worth of donations from the state Republican Party during the gubernatorial campaign. The Louisiana Board of Ethics has ordered a hearing to fully air complaints that the Jindal campaign violated the state’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act.

To its credit, the Jindal camp owned up to the violation.

“We are not trying to deny anything,” Jindal campaign accountant William Potter told The Advocate. Potter pointed the finger at Timmy Teepell, who’s now Jindal’s chief of staff. “[Teepell] just flat forgot to tell us,” Potter said. “I feel like we let Bobby down on this. He wanted 100 percent reported straight forward,” Potter said.

Hammond attorney and longtime Louisiana political observer C.B. Forgotson — who worked for the Louisiana Legislature for more than a decade and was chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee in the last seven years of his tenure — had a field day with the news. On his Web site, forgotson.com, he excerpted portions of Jindal’s campaign ethics reform pledges, which included:

• “Ensure that all state employees and officials understand that ignorance of the ethics code and its provisions is never a valid excuse for noncompliance.”

• “I will have a high standard for performance and a zero-tolerance for ethical lapses by my administrative appointments.”

Teepell isn’t going anywhere, but that didn’t stop the Louisiana Democratic Party from issuing a press release calling on Jindal to ask Teepell to resign. “This is an opportunity for Jindal to show the people of Louisiana and the country he’s serious about ethics reform by holding his own staff accountable,” said Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington. “We fully support ethics reform, but feel reform led by an administration that claimed to be unaware of current state laws is questionable.”

Not to be outdone, Jindal Press Secretary Melissa Sellers issued a bit of bluster of her own. “This is something that was originally filed against the campaign and made public in September,” Sellers said in a statement. “Our lawyers told us that we probably would not have to do anything about it since it was purely a partisan political stunt, but we immediately filed an amendment to our report detailing the ‘in kind’ contribution anyway out of an abundance of caution. We are going to pay the fine quickly and continue to operate with full transparency. Anytime we make a mistake we will admit it and correct it immediately.”

Bad move, calling this “purely a partisan political stunt.” If that’s all it was, there wouldn’t have been any action taken by the Louisiana Board of Ethics; state ethics laws don’t care whether a politician is a Democrat or Republican.

If the Jindal campaign immediately pays the fine as expected, the incident will be a tempest in a teapot that quickly fades from memory. But what’s disappointing is the way Jindal himself has handled the episode. He’s been relatively silent and let his surrogates handle it, only offering a brief comment while attending Washington, D.C. Mardi Gras.

“This is nothing new,” Jindal told The Times-Picayune. “As soon as we found out about this we disclosed the spending.” Responding to a follow-up question, he alluded to his forthcoming ethics reform package in the special session. “We need transparency for all of our government,” Jindal said. “People will know it’s a new day in Louisiana.”

By brusquely brushing it off, he doesn’t sound like the candidate who ran his governor’s race with endless rallying cries of ending corruption, cleaning up the state’s image and holding lawmakers and lobbyists accountable. It sounds more like a page from the current political handbook, where politicians use endless amounts of doublespeak in order not to ever admit a mistake. I’m no public relations guru, but here’s what I would have liked Jindal to say:

“I was extremely disappointed when I first learned of this during the campaign, and we took swift action to correct the problem. I have told my staff, including Timmy Teepell, that this kind of mistake will not be tolerated during my tenure as governor. As we move forward to institute serious ethics reform in Louisiana government, I will be holding myself and my staff to the highest standards possible, with no exceptions.”

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now let’s all move on to the real test, and see what comes out of the ethics special session.