‘Holes all over the place’
Personal financial disclosures require nearly all elected officials, department heads and high-ranking staff to report their income sources and liabilities. The amounts are reported within broad categories.
Campaign contributions are limited, and donors must identify themselves by name and by address. However, employers do not have to be identified. The public is left unable to easily determine how much a company’s employees – and their families – have given a candidate.
State law prohibits using campaign money for personal expenses, according to the state Board of Ethics, but allows expenses "related to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position." Some officials interpret this broadly.
Reporters found that House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, who won the seat unopposed and faced no opposition in 2007 and 2011, used campaign money to reimburse his wife for wedding gifts and “shower gifts” given to unnamed constituents. (The Ethics Board is reviewing the rules now and hopes to tighten how campaign dollars are spent.)
Many elected officials — particularly those from small rural communities where everyone knows everyone if they’re not related — complain that the ethics revamp went overboard in some ways, even if it didn’t go far enough in others.
“We can’t buy a valve in the middle of the night from the hardware store because my brother owns it,” said state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville. “I file a financial disclosure, my emails are publicly available. Transparency, right? But there are holes all over the place.”
While the process for bidding, vetting and acquiring contracts for construction, supplies and most services are scrupulously followed, Havard said, the governor’s effort to privatize the state’s charity hospital system was fraught with shortcuts.
The Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors – most members of which are longtime contributors to the governor who chose them for the position -- signed off in June 2013 on contracts to privately manage the state’s 10 charity hospitals. Four of the contracts approved contained more than 50 blank pages where lease terms and dollar figures should have been.
The annual costs of running the hospitals, many legislators say, are about twice as high under the private system. The Jindal administration contends that because more people are being served with better treatments, the costs are less than they would have been if the system remained under state operation. Havard said that is why he pushed a measure that would have required the legislative auditor to analyze costs, including legacy expenses, such as insurance and pensions of the soon-to-be-laid-off state employees. It also would have made records related to the privatization contracts available under the state’s public records law. (The bill was vetoed by Jindal.)
Historically, Louisiana, like most of the South, has operated under a “who you know” system. “Where is the line between the good ole boy system and breaking the law?” Stonecipher said. “It’s often difficult to tell; it’s certainly easy to cross.”
Earlier legal changes in ethics laws had shifted the responsibility from local authorities to the state level to achieve more uniform enforcement statewide. Though imperfect, the old system led to far more ethics prosecutions than are allowed under the new “gold standard.” The revamp instituted a much stricter standard of evidence and limited the board to investigations, leaving a panel of judges – chosen by an appointee of the governor – to adjudicate complaints.
“There’s no downside, no way to embarrass or call out some guy who has gone too far,” Stonecipher said. “We have good-looking laws, but no effective enforcement and that breeds more than just a system of corruption, but an acceptance of those practices.”