Bad Omens

by Jeremy Alford

Gov. Bobby Jindal's special session on ethics reform was foreshadowed by strange reactions, contradictory stances and legislative bewilderment, indicating that the 'gold standard' might be easier to promise than achieve. Gov. Bobby Jindal caught more flack than beads on Mardi Gras weekend. Jindal released his official agenda for his special session on ethics reform the Friday before Fat Tuesday, loading up his legislative package with unprecedented promises as krewes did their own packing and sorting. Phone calls from lawmakers and special interests flooded the new Republican governor’s office over the weekend, and he fielded what he could. By Lundi Gras, Jindal was releasing changes to his historic call, and old ghosts were floating around the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol.

Terry Ryder, formerly the top lawyer for ex-Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, was roaming around the governor’s office in a familiar way on Lundi Gras, chatting with visiting legislators and helping put out fires sparked by the rookie administration. Ryder’s name had been noticeably absent from the endless barrage of press releases announcing appointments and hires, but there he was. In all the commotion, he barely garnered a second glance.

Even after the changes were made to Jindal’s call last week, many in the House and Senate were left wondering about the devil in the details. E-mails from the administration were being sent to lawmakers during these final days asking them to co-author something — anything — from the governor’s package. But actual legislation wasn’t being provided. Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat who serves in Jindal’s leadership team as the chairman of Senate Retirement committee, says many veteran lawmakers were feeling “a bit of trepidation” at this point in the process because no detailed legislation had been brought forth.

Still, many legislators hitched their wagons to Jindal’s star during last year’s election cycle and were willing to make huge leaps, even if it meant disclosing their sources of income — Jindal’s crown jewel on ethics reform. “There’s some uneasiness out there about the disclosure bill, but it sounds like everyone is in favor of what the governor is trying to do,” Gautreaux says.

Another reason Jindal altered his call was public opinion. In early January, news broke that Jindal had possibly violated state ethics laws by failing to timely report $118,000 in campaign aid. No less than three political underlings took responsibility for the error, and the latest, Rolfe McCollister Jr., chairman and publisher of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report and Jindal’s campaign treasurer, has vowed to personally pay Jindal’s $2,500 fine pending with the state Ethics Board. (That’s the maximum fine allowed on the books; no penalty has officially been handed down.) This particular move did draw second looks, since under current law public officials are allowed to pay for issued fines with their own campaign funds — and Jindal has no shortage of that.

Where the money comes from will surely be an issue during the ongoing session, and at least one lawmaker thinks Jindal should pony up his personal dollars to pay for his own campaign finance violation, should a hearing determine there is one. Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, says he is pushing a bill during in the session that would force public officials to pay for ethics violations, including campaign infractions, out of their own pockets. Changing that law would make the system more personal, he argues. “That’s the way it should be,” says Richard. House Speaker Pro-tem Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, is pushing a similar bill to fit into the category as well.

Heat from legislators was constant during the final days leading up to the session. During a legislative committee hearing last week, lawmakers grilled Jindal’s Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Waguespack on the finer points of the financial disclosure bill, as Jindal wants lawmakers to report income and other financial data in broad ranges reaching up to or beyond $200,000.

The obvious sticking point will be how far the proposed law reaches. When lawmakers got hold of a bill last year requiring them to disclose income, they tacked on local officials and the measure died. More efforts like that are expected in the coming weeks, but some lawmakers may reach even further. For instance, freshman Rep. Joe Harrison, a Napoleonville Democrat, says he is considering legislation or possibly an amendment that would include members of Louisiana’s various boards and commissions. He’s also tinkering with a bill that would require lawmakers to disclose their income sources, but not in a way where personal information would become public record. “We need to find a way to make this work,” Harrison says.

Another hot issue that might hamper Jindal’s efforts can’t be found in his much-ballyhooed 31-point ethics plan that was released during his 2007 campaign. It’s not a recommendation from his carefully crafted ethics advisory team, either. Part of Jindal’s session call seeks to strengthen the state’s 11-member Ethics Board, which investigates violations and hands out fines. In particular, Jindal wants to take enforcement powers from the board and allow administrative law judges to conduct closed-door hearings on violations. The board would decide which cases should be handed down to the administrative judges, which state agencies have long used to settle potential legal disputes. Not only would public discussion be cut out of this part of the ethics process under Jindal’s proposal, it’s also unclear exactly who would appoint the judges, although the governor enjoys wide appointing authority under most of Louisiana’s laws.

Many people, including both the board’s current chairman and most-recent administrator, believe Jindal’s ethics board proposal will have the opposite of its intended effect. “In my opinion, no matter how much success Gov. Jindal might have in passing his proposed new ethics laws, enforcement under his recommendations would be decidedly — stunningly, I would say — weaker,” says Shreveport political analyst Elliott Stonecipher, who has become one of the state’s leading advocates for reforming the Ethics Board.

Even more shocking, according to Stonecipher, is the scant attention given to whistleblowers. “There is not even a single item related to increasing the rights and protections of those who file complaints, nor is there any provision for increasing public reporting of unethical behavior, or the highly regarded practice of telephone/Internet hotlines for reporting,” he says. Jindal also doesn’t raise the subject of the board’s budget, which would address its ability to handle more investigations.

His agenda appears to fall short of his campaign promises, but once a bill enters the legislative process, there’s no telling what it could come out looking like. Jindal is still trying to do more than any other governor in the area of ethics reform, but it’s a hastily assembled effort. In his attempt to give voters real action at a rapid pace, he may have reached too far too soon — but Jindal could still come out on top if he can get his act together and bring the Louisiana Legislature up to speed.