Saturday, July 20, 2024

Gov. Jeff Landry, in dispute with ethics board, signs law giving himself more control over it

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

Gov. Jeff Landry has signed a new law to give him control over the Louisiana Board of Ethics, even as a dispute between him and board members continues.

The ethics board charged Landry last year with failing to disclose flights he took to and from Hawaii on a political donor’s private plane while Landry was attorney general. Landry and the board are still in negotiations about what an appropriate punishment for his violation should be, with the next status conference in his case scheduled for July 5.

A few weeks after that meeting however, a new ethics board statute, sponsored by Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, will take effect Aug. 1. Under the new law, Landry and future governors will be able to appoint the majority of the members of the board directly, with far less input from outside sources.

Transparency advocates described the board changes as very troubling.

“I think it undermines the ability to enforce ethics in this state,” said Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan organization promoting fair and transparent government practices.

The ethics board oversees elected officials, political candidates and public employees for potential violations of state ethics rules, including conflicts of interest and campaign finance reporting failures.

Landry has been reprimanded by the ethics board twice in recent years, for not disclosing his private plane trips in 2021 and the inappropriate use of campaign funds to pay for his car loan over several years. Landry’s car payment issue did not result in a fine and was initially kept confidential, for reasons the ethics board hasn’t publicly explained.

Miguez’s new law expands the size of the ethics board from 11 to 15 members, with nine appointed by the governor and six appointed by lawmakers. The governor and legislators are encouraged to create a board with five retired judges, five elected officials and five people who have never held elected office “to the extent practicable,” under the new law.

That last bit of language means it’s recommended retired judges and retired elected officials hold board seats but not legally required.

Perhaps the greatest change from the current ethics law is that the governor and lawmakers will get to select board members directly, rather than picking them from a nomination list compiled by people intentionally removed from state politics.

Under current state law, leaders from Louisiana’s private universities and colleges nominate five people for each ethics board seat, and then the governor and state lawmakers pick their appointees from those lists. The buffer those private colleges and universities leaders provide, intended to insulate the board from political pressure, will no longer exist Aug. 1.

Terms for the four newly-created seats on the board — two coming from the governor and one each from the Louisiana Senate and House — will start Jan. 1, 2025. Terms for three of the 11 existing board members appointed by former Gov. John Bel Edwards will also expire on that date, allowing Landry to replace them.
This means seven of the 15 board members will be new in 2025. If the law hadn’t changed, only three of 11 board seats would have turned over at that time.

Three of Edwards’ remaining appointees cycle off the board at the beginning of 2026, and the four legislative appointees plus one Edwards’ appointee leave the board in 2027.

The ethics board is just one of several state entities Landry sought greater control over through changes in state law this year. He was also behind a new provision that allows him to pick the chairs of more than 100 state boards and commissions immediately. With the Legislature’s permission, he also changed the process for picking the state public defender management board to give the governor more power.

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