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Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Editorial: State's ethics laws need real bite

Last Modified: Friday, January 04, 2013 5:24 PM

The Louisiana Board of Ethics has been pretty much a toothless tiger since its inception, and changes in ethics laws in 2008 have made the board almost totally ineffective. However, some of the 2008 revisions did boost the state’s ethics ranking to the top of the national list because of new disclosure requirements for public officials.

One change moved in the opposite direction. It took away the ethics board’s authority to hear cases it investigated and gave that power to Ethics Adjudicatory Boards composed of administrative law judges. That put the board in the position of being much like district attorneys who prosecute cases after they have been investigated by law enforcement agencies.

Prosecutors have to share evidence with defense attorneys, and that is causing serious problems for the Board of Ethics. Ethics cases are being dismissed by those administrative law judges because the board isn’t turning over everything it has to those attorneys.

Gray Sexton, a lawyer who was formerly the ethics board administrator, has successful defended public officials accused of ethics violations.

“The ethics board is clearly a plaintiff in a civil action and full and complete discovery is in the interest of both parties,” Sexton told The Advocate.

The information in dispute is composed of documents provided to the ethics board and on which it based its charges. Kathleen Allen, the current administrator, told the newspaper the board provides all of the documents it legally has to provide.

The board has also stolen a page from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s book on how to avoid disclosing information. It has started refusing to hand over documents because they were used during a deliberative process to help the ethics board reach a decision. The governor uses the same argument to withhold information on staff budget talks and other behind-the-scenes deliberations.

Like most legal disputes, this one ended up in state district court. The case involved St. Gabriel Police Chief Kevin Ambeaux, who was accused of a conflict of interest because he owned a private security company while serving as police chief.

 The judge ruled that withholding the information would infringe on Ambeaux’s rights. The board appealed that decision to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, and the case could end up in the State Supreme Court.

Blake Monrose, chairman of the ethics board, said the Legislature could also solve the problem by defining what information is confidential and what isn’t. However, the odds are lawmakers would prefer to let the courts make that decision. That is probably the best course of action, considering some of the Legislature’s previous ethics changes have done more to hinder than help enforcement of the state’s ethics laws.

If Louisiana is going to have ethics laws, it should have some with teeth. What is has now is nothing more than a legal quagmire.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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