Last Modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 1:29 AM
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's ethics laws are touted as some of the best in the country, but they are pretty much toothless tigers. Exceptions to the laws are granted continuously and enforcement of violations is virtually nonexistent.
The way those exceptions are handled is a devious exercise. The legislation granting them doesn't mention names, and the committees that hear the bills are extremely coy, saying as little as they can to reduce the opportunities for public backlash.
Take, for example, the recent exception granted for former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier of New Orleans. Heitmeier is a registered lobbyist for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.
Heitmeier happens to have a brother, state Sen. David Heitmeier, who replaced him in the Senate. And because of that, the former senator isn't supposed to lobby the Legislature.
No problem, though. House Bill 459 fixed the problem. Here is what the key part of the bill says:
"The immediate family member was a registered lobbyist as provided in R.S. 49:71 et seq., for at least one year prior to January 9, 2012, or was a registered lobbyist as provided in R.S. 24:50 et seq., for at least one year prior to January 1, 2009, or for at least one year prior to becoming an immediate family member of the legislator, or for at least one year prior to the legislator's initial election to the legislature."
If you figured out that's Heitmeier, you're a genius. His name did surface when legislators asked, but most of them tried to avoid letting the cat out of the bag.
The Heitmeier exception made it all the way through the Legislature.
The House passed it 58-26, and the Senate vote was 20-8. Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, was the only Southwest Louisiana legislator voting against the bill.
Gov. Bobby Jindal got the legislation Tuesday. If he signs it, the deal is done.
Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, is chairman of the Senate committee that heard the bill. He said the exception is similar to others approved for immediate family members of other legislators to prevent violation of conflicts of interest laws.
Since it was done for others, is that supposed to make it OK? So why do we even pretend we have some of the best ethics laws in the country?
I suppose you could call the entire episode a case of lawmakers protecting their own.
Amedee is also trying to help a top deputy of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu become executive director of the city's Sewerage and Water Board. Cedric Grant has been voting for the mayor at board meetings, and the ethics board said he has to wait two years before accepting the job.
Senate Bill 303 that is designed to get around the prohibition passed the Senate 29-3 Monday and is awaiting committee action in the House.
That bill says the ethics law can't preclude "the employment of a person by a board that is created by law when the person has served as a member of the board as a designee, as authorized by law, of a mayor, but is not subject to confirmation nor confirmed by the council, of a municipality with a population of three hundred thousand or more according to the latest federal decennial census."
Did you see Grant's name anywhere in there? Legislators will tell you laws have to be written that way, but they don't go out of their way to decipher the code.
Ethics exceptions are only part of the problem with the state's ethics laws. WBRZ-TV News 2 in Baton Rouge reported last week that 160 current and former politicians owe the state $629,000 in ethics violations fines that are deemed final debt.
Jarrod Coniglio, deputy secretary of the state Department of Revenue, told the TV station's investigative unit that final debt means all of the appeals process and all of the delays have expired.
The fines are levied when officials break the rules. Most of the fines are for failing to file their campaign finance reports on time.
Leave it to state Treasurer John Kennedy to put this situation in perspective. Here is what he told WBRZ:
"If you are the average taxpayer and you under pay your taxes by $10, they are all over you. They will freeze your bank account. They will take your first-born child. But that's for the average person. Here you have a bunch of politicians who have clearly violated the law and state government will not go get the money. That's just wrong," he said.
Kennedy added, "… I'm not saying it's reality, but to the average person it looks like these people are getting special treatment."
Some legislative leaders are definitely getting special treatment. They have been engaging in questionable campaign activities, according to a Times-Picayune series titled, "Louisiana Purchased."
Among the violations cited are double-billing their campaign funds and the Legislature, engaging in questionable spending and filing errors in their ethics reporting forms.
No one, including the ethics board, has held them accountable for their alleged misdeeds.
In light of all of these activities, how can anyone in good conscience still claim that Louisiana has the gold standard of ethics laws?
Posted By: Enlightened Citizen On: 5/22/2014
Title: Thank you Jim Beam
Your editorial inspired me to research our local politicians. I googled "Ethics violations" followed by the name of each local legislator. The only violation that appeared was for Chuck Kleckley. According to news reports, Chuck accepted more than 73,000 dollars in excess PAC Contributions. He returned the money in November of 2013. The news reports state that even though this was a violation of Louisiana's Ethics Rules and Regulations, the State Ethics Board ignored the violation and didn't fine Mr. Kleckley a dime. Other elected officials are fined for much less of a violation than this, so I guess it helps being in the Governor's Camp. I don't remember reading about this in the American Press, but I may have missed it. Jim, it would be great if you were to research these news reports and let us know if you think they are bogus. I know newspaper editors are known to slant news articles to serve their own purposes, so I will reserve final judgement until I hear your opinion.