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PAR Says Ban Recovery Contracts for Officials

Tough ethics laws that keep public officials out of the recovery contracting business will help decrease the appearance of impropriety and help make the case for more federal recovery aid. A House committee got off to a good start last week by unanimously approving HB 1236, which would prohibit elected and appointed state officials, their families and businesses from having contracts related to hurricane recovery or rebuilding.

A similar measure passed out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee during the 2005 special session but was ruled outside of the Governor’s call for the session and could not be considered. The legislature ended up passing a law, which requires that such contracts be reported.

Contracts worth millions of dollars were awarded by federal, state and local authorities outside of the public bid law shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The state ethics board currently has 199 reports disclosing information about recovery contracts connected to public officials. Some contractors are either elected or appointed officials, but most recipients are close family members. In one case, FEMA awarded a legislator’s parent several no-bid contracts worth nearly $115 million. Investigations of that arrangement and others have occurred, and the FBI has created a special task force to examine disaster-related contracts.

Sacrifice is a necessary part of public service. The Herculean task of rebuilding the state requires public officials to sacrifice often lucrative recovery work to win the trust of citizens. HB 1236 should be strengthened further by including local appointed officials and their family members and lowering the allowed ownership threshold in business entities from 10% to 5% as recommended by PAR in 2005. The ban should also include a provision explicitly prohibiting the renewal of contracts.

Merely requiring the disclosure of contracts, while a useful step toward transparency, does not aid in ridding the state of the appearance of impropriety. Allegations of wrongdoing and ensuing investigations undoubtedly will continue, and a ban will decrease the opportunity for improper activity and protect fairness in contracting. At a time when thousands of citizens are struggling to rebuild their homes, find jobs and stabilize their families, the enactment of strong ethics reform invites citizens and businesses to return to Louisiana with confidence.

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