With five days remaining in Louisiana’s legislative session, the state Senate approved a deal removing an exemption that for the past six years essentially kept most government records out of the public’s hands.
Postponing the implementation date, however, was the only way to ensure that Gov. Bobby Jindal would not veto a bill that did away with the “deliberative process” exception to the state’s well-regarded open records statutes.
In 2009, Jindal had sold the provision – making available all records except those used for the governor’s internal decision-making process – as a way to grant broader public access. What happened, however, is that agencies throughout state government used the exception to withhold documents.
“It turns out we were boondoggled on that,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.
It’s the everyday interpretation of what otherwise are well-regarded ethics laws that led to Louisiana’s dismal showing in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, an national assessment of state government transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
When all the categories are tallied, Louisiana comes in with an overall score of 59 – an F – ranking 41st out of 50 states.
Jindal said about the score, “During our time in office, we have made it a top priority to completely revamp and strengthen Louisiana’s ethics laws. Since 2008, we’ve passed unprecedented reforms like requiring personal disclosure for the vast majority of elected and appointed officials, and requiring annual ethics training for all public servants and lobbyists. Prior to our administration, Louisiana’s political history was riddled with corruption and we’re proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish to hold officials accountable.”
Louisiana’s score, however, has dropped significantly since 2012, the first time the State Integrity Investigation was carried out, when the Pelican State ranked 15th with a C-. It was the first review of a sweeping revamp of the state ethics code enacted in 2008.
The two scores are not directly comparable due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
But observers say that the dramatic decline does accurately reflect how the revised code is working on a day-to-day basis.
The report shows that Jindal’s “gold standard” of ethics (as he has described the new laws) is riddled with loopholes and cynical interpretations by the governor and other state officials.
Back in 2007, when Jindal was looking for ways to improve Louisiana’s historic reputation for corruption, his staff questioned the Center for Public Integrity and other groups for the proposals that they said were necessary to increase the state’s score on good-government report cards.
The 2008 ethics code revamp included provisions such as requiring nearly every elected official, top staffers and most board members to disclose their personal finances; limiting lobbyist entertainment and contributions; and prescribing how government officials could reenter the private workforce.
“He gave you what you wanted. But it didn’t change anything, and in many ways, it made it worse,” said Elliott Stonecipher, who advised then-Gov. Buddy Roemer on political strategy and ethics in the 1980s and continued working with the Ethics Board until a majority of its members resigned shortly after Jindal’s revamp stripped enforcement powers from the agency. Stonecipher has been an ardent and vocal critic of Jindal ever since.
Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a governmental policy research group, said the state has enacted a number of strong ethics laws, but that the practice lags behind. “It’s improved in many ways,” he said. “But we probably have too many exceptions.”
‘Holes all over the place’
Personal financial disclosures require nearly all elected officials, department heads and high-ranking staff to report their income sources and liabilities. The amounts are reported within broad categories.
Campaign contributions are limited, and donors must identify themselves by name and by address. However, employers do not have to be identified. The public is left unable to easily determine how much a company’s employees – and their families – have given a candidate.
State law prohibits using campaign money for personal expenses, according to the state Board of Ethics, but allows expenses “related to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.” Some officials interpret this broadly.
Reporters found that House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, who won the seat unopposed and faced no opposition in 2007 and 2011, used campaign money to reimburse his wife for wedding gifts and “shower gifts” given to unnamed constituents. (The Ethics Board is reviewing the rules now and hopes to tighten how campaign dollars are spent.)
Many elected officials — particularly those from small rural communities where everyone knows everyone if they’re not related — complain that the ethics revamp went overboard in some ways, even if it didn’t go far enough in others.
“We can’t buy a valve in the middle of the night from the hardware store because my brother owns it,” said state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville. “I file a financial disclosure, my emails are publicly available. Transparency, right? But there are holes all over the place.”
While the process for bidding, vetting and acquiring contracts for construction, supplies and most services are scrupulously followed, Havard said, the governor’s effort to privatize the state’s charity hospital system was fraught with shortcuts.
The Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors – most members of which are longtime contributors to the governor who chose them for the position — signed off in June 2013 on contracts to privately manage the state’s 10 charity hospitals. Four of the contracts approved contained more than 50 blank pages where lease terms and dollar figures should have been.
The annual costs of running the hospitals, many legislators say, are about twice as high under the private system. The Jindal administration contends that because more people are being served with better treatments, the costs are less than they would have been if the system remained under state operation. Havard said that is why he pushed a measure that would have required the legislative auditor to analyze costs, including legacy expenses, such as insurance and pensions of the soon-to-be-laid-off state employees. It also would have made records related to the privatization contracts available under the state’s public records law. (The bill was vetoed by Jindal.)
Historically, Louisiana, like most of the South, has operated under a “who you know” system. “Where is the line between the good ole boy system and breaking the law?” Stonecipher said. “It’s often difficult to tell; it’s certainly easy to cross.”
Earlier legal changes in ethics laws had shifted the responsibility from local authorities to the state level to achieve more uniform enforcement statewide. Though imperfect, the old system led to far more ethics prosecutions than are allowed under the new “gold standard.” The revamp instituted a much stricter standard of evidence and limited the board to investigations, leaving a panel of judges – chosen by an appointee of the governor – to adjudicate complaints.
“There’s no downside, no way to embarrass or call out some guy who has gone too far,” Stonecipher said. “We have good-looking laws, but no effective enforcement and that breeds more than just a system of corruption, but an acceptance of those practices.”