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PAR Releases Ethics Report – Toward Stronger Ethics

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana released a new report today, Toward Stronger Ethics: The Next Steps Forward for Louisiana’s Ethics and Campaign Finance Laws.

The report makes 14 recommendations to encourage better compliance with the laws and to strengthen enforcement. The recommendations serve three main objectives: to clarify the law and establish a better administrative process, in part by addressing jurisdictional questions that arose after the ethics system changes in 2008; to improve enforcement by giving more tools to the prosecutor; and to create greater public confidence in Louisiana’s ethics and campaign finance laws, including an improved definition of the “personal use” of campaign finance funds and a better process for state officials who recuse themselves from voting.

Access the full report, click here .

“The goals of a strong and effective ethics system should be to foster a culture in which the rules for compliance are highly valued and easily understood,” said PAR President Robert Travis Scott. “A good system will help prevent infractions, provide effective enforcement and do all this in a way that promotes clarity and confidence in both the law and the process.”

Several of PAR’s recommendations support concepts that are embodied in proposed legislation this session. These include the right of the Board of Ethics to appeal unfavorable decisions by the newly created Ethics Adjudicatory Board panels. In limited circumstances, the adjudicatory process should allow for the suspension of the time period required for the Board of Ethics to bring charges in a case. Also, the law should be clarified to distinguish the roles of the various oversight and adjudicatory bodies with regard to campaign finance law and to define key terms that currently are ambiguous.

The legislative proposals backing these recommendations were initiated by the governor and are supported by leadership in the Legislature. If properly guided through the legislative process, the proposals deserve strong public support.

Toward Stronger Ethics is the product of PAR’s ongoing independent evaluation of the state’s ethics laws and enforcement process. The work has included interviews of people with relevant experience and knowledge, a review of practices in other states and consideration of Louisiana case law. The purpose of this project is to identify ways to improve the system and to maintain and increase public confidence in Louisiana’s administration of the ethics code, personal financial disclosures, campaign finance laws and lobbying regulations.

This PAR project is led by PAR President Robert Travis Scott and J. Terry Ryder, who has more than 12 years of experience in the governor’s office including positions as former Special Counsel and Deputy Chief of Staff for Gov. Mike Foster and former Executive Counsel for Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

The PAR report makes the following recommendations:

1 State law and administrative regulations should be improved to clarify which bodies – the Board of Ethics, the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, the dis¬trict courts and the appeals courts — have jurisdiction over the various types of duties associated with administering and adjudicating the campaign finance law. PAR’s report offers specific suggestions.

2 The Board of Ethics and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board should act in concert to promulgate rules to implement the new system of dual boards handling ethics and campaign finance cases. The Legislative committees should firmly encourage this process and provide oversight.

3 References to the terms “board” and “panels” in state law are ambigu¬ous and must be clarified. The law should distinguish which of the two boards is intended when the term “board” is used. A pre-2008 provision in the law that appears to require the Board of Ethics to utilize sub-panels in its decision-making process is outdated and has not been used by the ethics board, causing potential obstacles in the adjudication of cases. The law should clarify that panels are merely optional.

4 The Board of Ethics should be given a right to appeal unfavorable deci¬sions by the Ethics Adjudicatory Board. These appeals should go to a state appellate court, which is the same avenue of appeal open to respondents who receive unfavorable judgments. This provides an extra check on the decisions of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board.

5 If the Board of Ethics is given a limited right of appeal, such as for “ques¬tions of law” only, the terms of the limited right to appeal should be made as clear as possible. The Administrative Procedures Act offers guidance in this regard.

6 Terms of service for members of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board panels should be staggered and extended from three years to five – the same as for members of the Board of Ethics – in order to increase the level of experience available on these important panels and to maximize the state’s investment in the growing knowledge base of these state civil service lawyers.

7 The Board of Ethics should retain the authority to accept final consent opinions — in which respondents admit infractions and agree to penalties — and make them fully enforceable.

8 A new understanding must be reached regarding which investigatory records must be shielded or turned over by the Board of Ethics to a respon¬dent facing charges. A deadlock between the Board of Ethics and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board on this issue recently resulted in a dismissed case and could affect many other cases in the future.

9 The state campaign finance law should be more restrictive for the “personal use” of campaign finance funds, or the Board of Ethics should achieve the same goal by issuing new rules supported by the Legislature. The U.S. law defining and restricting the personal use of campaign finance money for federal elected offices provides good guidelines for this Louisiana reform.

10 In limited circumstances the adjudicatory process should allow for the suspension of the time period required for the Ethics Board to bring charges against a respondent in a case.

11 The Board of Ethics and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board should make public proceedings available by video online, both live and archived.

12 The pool of candidates for nomination to the Board of Ethics could be enhanced by allowing a person who serves on another volunteer state board to leave that panel and be appointed to the ethics board without having to wait six months between assignments.

13 The state’s recusal law for elected and appointed officials on boards and commissions should be strengthened to require the officials to make state¬ments about the reasons for a recusal from voting and participation on a particular matter.

14 As a long-term endeavor, the state should develop and debate a new draft of the Code of Governmental Ethics with the goal of adopting a completely new version that retains the current code’s core aims and values while pro¬viding a more clear and consistent set of standards and process to increase compliance.

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