What Ethics Reform?

by Jeremy Alford

Critics say the Legislature has taken a no-good attitude toward do-good measures this session.

When West Monroe Republican Rep. Mike Walsworth tried to get a hearing on the House floor for his bill to prohibit elected officials from entering into hurricane recovery contracts, 52 of his colleagues rejected it and buried the ethics proposal in a shallow grave. The Legislature countered that move by advancing another measure by Rep. Gary Beard of Baton Rouge banning officials with oversight on hurricane recovery contracts from accepting campaign contributions from those companies or individuals eligible for the contracts.

So how do legislators manage to look like they're pushing ethics reform while still retaining opportunities to line their pockets?

"It's because there's no great public outcry," says Dr. Bryan-Paul Frost, an adjunct professor of philosophy at UL Lafayette who has taught courses on ethics and politics. "Ethics are not a tangible sort of issue," Frost says. "They don't immediately affect voters like taxes or other things."

People should be clamoring for ethics reform, says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonprofit group that monitors the activities of state government. Brandt doesn't dole out high grades to the Legislature for its handling of ethics issues over the past few months.

"We were very disappointed there weren't more robust [ethics] reforms enacted during the regular session," he says. "There wasn't a whole lot that got done." While there have been strides made in recent years ' banning fundraising during sessions, tightening lobbying rules ' Brandt says every year brings a few steps backward.

For instance, Rep. Hunter Greene, a Baton Rouge Republican, filed legislation he later withdrew that would have allowed his friend Patrick Mockler, co-owner of Mockler Beverage, to sell beer to the Santa Maria Golf Course while Mockler was being considered for an appointment to the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, which oversees the course. And Jefferson Parish Rep. Steve Scalise's effort to abolish a little-known perk held by New Orleans area officials that allows them to pull people out of jail that have been charged with a municipal violation? That failed.

Brandt says lawmakers are also deft at procedural maneuvers that blunt efforts for change. The committees on governmental affairs in each chamber, both of which handle ethics measures, often won't allow a bill to reach a floor vote. "It seems as though they work in tandem," Brandt says, "or they pass something they know the other house will kill."

A bill prohibiting lawmakers from accepting free concert and sporting tickets from lobbyists and other interests was approved by the Senate, but it still had to face the House and Governmental Affairs Committee during the final weeks of the session, which "has been hostile to this type of ethics reform in the past," Brandt says.

Bills requiring more disclosure by certain agencies and offices didn't do much better. "It has not been a good session for sunshine," Brandt says, referring to the terminology for public records disclosure. A bill that would have required public statements from groups seeking state money met a quiet death during the session, as did a proposal that would have made public certain documents in the governor's office.

The latter example is the reason so many agencies want the cover of the executive branch. The exemption from public records law provides shade from the sunshine, says New Orleans Rep. Peppi Bruneau, who sponsored the legislation closing the loophole.

"That's why everyone wants to be in there," Bruneau lamented during a speech on the House floor earlier this month.

The reluctance of lawmakers to make sweeping changes is no surprise to Frost. "Very few people are willing to put restrictions on their own power, especially when they are the ones in power," he says.