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Ethics administration needs further reform, PAR says

Click here to download a copy of the report.

The Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) today released an in-depth research report evaluating recent changes to the state’s ethics laws and enforcement process. A major finding of “The Unfinished Business of Ethics Reform” is that some of the changes made as part of the 2008 ethics reform movement have weakened the state’s ability to monitor and enforce compliance with the laws.

“Our evaluation shows that, although some progress was made toward the so-called gold standard of governmental ethics, Louisiana isn’t there yet. In fact, in some regards we even took a step backward,” said PAR President Jim Brandt. “The good news is that there are workable solutions that can be enacted this legislative session.”

The report finds that some ethics laws were made stronger with more expansive campaign and personal financial disclosure requirements, enhanced expenditure reporting from lobbyists, and new limitations on gifts that public servants can accept. However, changes to the ethics oversight process have undermined many of those improvements.

Instead of ethics cases being judged by the 11-member board originally created to do so, cases now are judged by civil service administrative law judges (ALJs) who answer to one person who is appointed by the governor. As a result, the ethics administration process now resembles the model that 1973 constitutional convention delegates attempted to avoid—one that places inordinate power in the hands of the governor.

The new procedural laws transferred the board’s adjudicatory authority to ALJs; do not allow the board to appeal ALJ decisions; and force the board to adopt each ALJ decision as its own, even if the board disagrees with the outcome of the case. Moreover, the new laws have required financial disclosure for so many new groups of public servants that the state does not have procedures in place to even name or count them. Among other problems: the time periods allowed for consideration and investigation of complaints have been confused, and the usefulness of advisory opinions by the board has been diminished.

Problems with public accessibility to ethics proceedings, data and outcomes also are cited in the report. Although meetings are open to the public, neither the Board of Ethics nor the Ethics Adjudicatory Board provides live, online access to meetings underway or archived recordings of past meetings. Additionally, most data that are collected are not stored in a way that allows citizens to search, sort and make meaningful connections between dollars spent on public servants and potential conflicts of interest.

The PAR analysis offers a model for an improved ethics administration system that could be enacted in the upcoming legislative session. It would correct some of the newly created problems and establish a clear distinction between the prosecutorial and adjudicatory roles that were intermingled in the pre-2008 system. The ALJs would not play a role in the proposed system.

The following recommendations are proposed:

Strengthen Investigation

1. Require the executive officer of every board and commission within the state to report annually to the secretary of state (1) the names of members, and (2) the amount spent, disbursed and/or invested by the board/commission in the most recent fiscal year; and require that the secretary of state maintain such information online for public use.

2. Authorize and require ethics investigation staff to audit for truthfulness a randomly selected group of financial reports submitted each calendar year.

Strengthen Prosecution

3. Resolve legal discrepancies regarding time frames within which action may be taken to enforce ethics laws.

Strengthen Adjudication

4. Re-establish the ethics board as the only adjudicatory body responsible for the administration and enforcement of the ethics code and other laws within the board’s jurisdiction; remove the ethics board’s ability to collect financial reports, initiate investigations and consider ethics complaints prior to formal charges being issued.

5. Establish a separate, independent ethics investigatory commission, similar to the ethics board, dedicated to the collection and auditing of financial reports and the investigation and prosecution of alleged violations of the ethics code and other laws within the ethics board’s jurisdiction.

Improve Transparency

6. Require that public meetings and hearings of ethics proceedings be broadcast live via the Internet and that audio/video archives and written minutes of prior meetings and hearings be provided online, as well.

7. Require all financial information submitted to the ethics investigation commission be entered into an online data system, which would allow the information to be sorted by any combination of fields.

Ann W. Heath, PAR staff attorney and research analyst, is the primary author of the report. For additional information or to download a copy of the report, go to PAR’s Web site at www.la-par.org.

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