Louisiana tightens its ethics standards

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A bill passed during a special session of the Louisiana State Legislature makes substantial changes in the state's financial disclosure standards, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows.

Two years ago, in the same survey, Louisiana's financial disclosure law earned 43 out of 100 points, ranking it in the bottom fifth of all states for ethics standards.The new law, which takes effect in January 2009, will provide more information to the public about the personal financial interests of state legislators and public officials.  The law earned 99 out of a possible 100 points on a survey used by the Center to rank public disclosure requirements for state legislators and puts Louisiana's law on par with the nation's best financial disclosure laws.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who took office in January, initiated the special legislative session, which focused on ethics reform.  Jindal, a Republican, made transparency in government the centerpiece of his 2007 campaign for governor.  He maintains that strengthening Louisiana's ethics laws will help the state attract investment and jobs.

In pushing for reform, Jindal has pointed to the Center's survey and similar yardsticks in arguing that Louisiana must achieve the "gold standard" in ethics.  During the special legislative sessions, for example, the governor's staff distributed a 16-page document to lawmakers that explained how the Center's survey awards points.

Jindal's staff relied on the Center's methodology for ranking ethics laws as a jumping-off point in the governor's ethics proposals, Camille Conaway, a policy adviser, said. "We started with the ranking, then tried to go beyond that and see what other states were doing," Conaway told the Center. "We did our best to craft a bill that would make us a model."

The new law includes provisions that do not earn points in the Center's rankings. One, for example, requires public officials to disclose loans and other liabilities of more than $10,000.

According to Conaway, the governor's office plans to use improvements in rankings such as the Center's as tool to attract investors to Louisiana.

"Louisiana thinks, and it may be rightly or wrongly, that the nation views Louisiana as incredibly corrupt and therefore untrustworthy," G. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at University of Louisiana-Lafayette, told the Center. "They think that nationally people will notice that Louisiana has cleaned up its act."

An earlier version of the bill would have required state judges to meet the same disclosure standards as legislators and public officials. The Louisiana Supreme Court has promised that it will upgrade its disclosure rules for the state judiciary to an equivalent standard by June.

In a letter to Jindal and Joel Chaisson II, the president of the state Senate, Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero, Jr., said that he has "already begun the process of examining financial disclosure provisions adopted by other states with an eye towards amending our Code of Judicial Conduct," according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  Judicial disclosure standards vary widely from state to state, a July 2007 Center report found.

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