Saturday, July 13, 2024

Lawmakers give Landry control over ethics board amid dispute over discipline

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry delivers his address to state lawmakers on opening day of the regular legislative session, Monday, March 11, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

Louisiana lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to give Gov. Jeff Landry control over the Louisiana Board of Ethics, just a few months after its members charged him with breaking a state ethics law.

The governor is in an ongoing dispute with ethics board members over what consequences he should face for not disclosing flights to Hawaii he took on a political donor’s private plane while attorney general. A status conference on the case is scheduled for July.

Yet Landry could gain the ability to appoint ethics board members directly a month later, on Aug. 1, under legislation that looks likely to pass in the next few days. Lawmakers could be one vote away from approving Senate Bill 497, which removes a buffer meant to insulate the ethics board from political pressure.

The Senate voted 27-10 in April for an earlier version of the legislation, and the House of Representatives voted 70-25 for a reworked bill Tuesday. It must return to the Senate for at least one more vote before going to Landry’s desk.

Transparency advocates have called the proposal a step backward for Louisiana.

“We have a serious history of corruption in Louisiana,” Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), said during a hearing on the legislation earlier this month. “Given our history, given our data, I cannot understand why we would undermine the ethics board by allowing unfettered control by the governor.”

Under current law, leaders from Louisiana’s private universities and colleges nominate five people for each of the 11 seats on the ethics board, and then the governor and state lawmakers pick their appointees from those lists. The governor gets to pick seven members, and state lawmakers select four.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, would remove the private university and college presidents from the process altogether. Under every version of the bill so far, the governor and legislative leaders get to pick the ethics members on their own.

Miguez said the proposal would help streamline the ethics board process, but transparency advocates said the extra steps are necessary.

Barry Erwin, CEO and president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, said the current ethics board process is in place to prevent “the fox from guarding the hen house.” Private colleges and universities are involved to protect the board from political influence, he said.

“We would like to see that continue. Keep the politics out of it,” Erwin said in testimony earlier this month.

Representatives also made several changes to the board’s structure through amendments Tuesday from House Republican Caucus Chairman Mark Wright, R-Covington.

In the current version of the legislation, the board would expand from 11 to 15 members, with nine appointed by the governor and six appointed by lawmakers. The governor and legislators would also be encouraged “to the extent practicable” to create a board with five retired judges, five retired elected officials and five people who have never held elected office.

The expansion would allow Landry and lawmakers to change the board makeup more quickly. Ethics board members serve in staggered terms, meaning only one to three seats open up every year.

If four more members are added in 2025, as proposed, Landry would place new members on the board more quickly than if he had to wait for all of former Gov. John Bel Edwards’ appointees to cycle off the panel.

The new suggestion that retired judges and elected officials should compose most of the board might be a response to criticism the proposal has received.

In testimony objecting to the bill, Procopio said PAR could only find 12 states where the governor gets to appoint most of its ethics boards. In many of those instances, other restrictions apply. He specifically mentioned South Dakota’s governor can only pick retired judges to serve.

Miguez said Tuesday night he was still reviewing the House’s changes to decide whether he will accept them outright.

“It looks like Rep. Wright drafted the amendments in such a way to address a number of concerns from testimony,” Miguez said in a text message.

Should the legislation pass, it’s not clear how it would impact Landry’s ethics dispute.

The ethics board said Landry failed to disclose that he had received something of value for performing his public job, as state law requires.

It charged Landry and one of the companies owned by the private plane’s owner, retired energy executive Greg Mosing, in August when Landry, a Republican, was running for governor. Landry took Mosing’s plane to travel to and from an attorneys general conference where he was speaking in 2021.

Last fall, Landry and Mosing accused former Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, of weaponizing the ethics board to pursue them over the Hawaii trip.

“John Bel’s ‘unethical’ ethics board – made up of majority democrat appointees to smear his political opponents — is attempting to sully my name because I have been friends with Jeff Landry for over 20 years, and Jeff is the leading candidate to replace him,” Mosing said in a written statement at the time.

Edwards responded to those accusations by saying he didn’t know the majority of ethics board members personally, presumably because he selected them from a list provided by the leaders of the private colleges and universities.

“They are not really people that I seek out, and really they’re not even people that I know, with I think the single exception of being Butch Speer, who is the former clerk of the [Louisiana] House,” Edwards said at the time.

Edwards held a seat in the Louisiana House when Speer was clerk.

The ethics board also chastised Landry in 2022 over a separate case, where he inappropriately used campaign funds to pay his car loan, but it didn’t charge him with a violation in that matter.

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