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No whining for dining, PAR Says

Louisiana’s ethics code generally prohibits public servants from receiving things of economic value, barring certain exceptions. Past exceptions, such as free tickets to events and lavish wining and dining from special interest groups, fueled public perception that access to policy makers could be bought. As a result, exceptions such as these were eliminated or scaled back during the ethics reform efforts of 2008. One bill currently being considered by the Legislature (HB 591) would move in the opposite direction and expand an exception that allows lobbyists to buy food and drink for public employees. This effort should be rejected.

Prior to 2008, public servants (public employees and elected officials) were allowed to consume any food and drink provided by a third party as long as they were the personal guest of the provider. In 2008, the Legislature limited the value of food and drink that could be given by a lobbyist at any one event to $50 per public servant. However, the Legislature provided certain instances where the $50 limit would not apply, including:

  • Gatherings held “in conjunction with” a meeting related to:
    • A national or regional organization, or
    • A statewide organization of government officials or employees.

A recent disagreement between certain legislators and the state’s Board of Ethics prompted the introduction of HB 591 – an effort by legislators to clarify what they originally intended regarding the exception. The debate focuses on what types of gatherings are considered to be ones held “in conjunction with” the larger meetings listed above, as those gatherings are exempt from the $50 food and drink limit.

The Board of Ethics concluded that gatherings paid for by a third party (not the hosting national, regional or statewide organization) would fall within the exception above only if the gathering was part of the scheduled meeting’s activities and was open to all meeting attendees. This interpretation would allow a lobbyist to pay for unlimited wining and dining of public servants if the event were scheduled as part of the larger meeting and all attendees were invited. However, a lobbyist who wanted to host a separate gathering, which was not part of the meeting’s scheduled activities and/or wanted to invite only certain meeting attendees would be subject to the $50 per-person, per-meal limit.

Certain legislators took issue with the board’s interpretation. Those legislators argued that the language “in conjunction with” also should include any “activity, occasion, reception, meal or meeting” held during the “same time period” and in the “same general locale” as the larger meetings within the exception. This interpretation would allow third parties (lobbyists, private business owners, other associations, etc.) to show up at any national, regional or statewide meeting of public servants and provide any value of food and drink anywhere near the originally scheduled meeting. Proponents of HB 591claim that its language is more closely aligned with their original intent.

HB 591 passed its first committee hearing with little debate and now awaits consideration on the House floor. If allowed to pass, this measure will expand opportunities for special interests to wine and dine public servants. The cozy relationships fostered by this newly defined exception would further frustrate citizen trust in government and increase the appearance of impropriety. Legislators should reject HB 591 and let constituents know they are willing to sacrifice perks in order to improve the image of the state and help restore the public’s confidence.

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