Saturday, July 13, 2024

Louisiana ethics board faces higher quorum hurdle under new law

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

The Louisiana Board of Ethics will face challenges conducting its business over the next five months under a new state law that gives Gov. Jeff Landry more control over the body.

Senate Bill 497, sponsored by Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, expands the number of ethics board members from 11 to 15 members but doesn’t add those extra four members until January.

Starting in August, however, the board will have to operate under a higher quorum threshold to issue opinions and launch ethics investigations.

Next month, the number of members required to hold a meeting will jump from six to eight of the current 11 members. Ten of 11 board members, instead of eight, will need to be present in order for the board to move forward with investigations of a potential ethics violation, said Kathleen Allen, the board’s administrator.

The state ethics board already struggles at times to maintain a quorum under its current threshold. At its July meeting last week, nine members were present, which would not be enough to move forward with ethics investigations under the incoming law next month.

Board chairwoman La Koshia Roberts said the board also had to adjourn early at one of its meetings earlier this year when they couldn’t find six members to constitute a quorum.

“It’s imperative that we attend as consistently as possible,” Roberts of Lake Charles told her fellow board members Wednesday. “Now it is going to be even more difficult to conduct the state’s business.”

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. People confidentially report concerns about government officials to the board, and then the board decides whether the matter merits further investigation.

Under existing law, the governor and lawmakers had to pick ethics board members from a list of people recommended by the leaders of Louisiana’s private colleges and universities. Landry and legislators removed that barrier.

Starting in January, Landry will get to pick nine of the 15 board members directly. Legislators will pick the other six. All of the appointments will be subject to Louisiana Senate confirmation.

There are some remaining restrictions as to who can serve as a board member.

The members are still not allowed to hold state contracts and they can’t give political donations or volunteer on political campaigns, according to Allen. At least one board member must also come from each congressional district, she said.

The governor and legislators will also be 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.

Board member Alfred Speer doubts Landry and legislators will be able to find five retired judges who would want to take the ethics job. If judges sit on the ethics board, then they have to give up any part-time work they have presiding in court.

“We would never have 15 members because he can’t have five judges come down here for the pay we get … when they could sit as an ad hoc judge,” Speer, who served as the Louisiana House clerk for four decades, said at last week’s meeting.

The board will also need to reconfigure the dais where the members sit and conduct hearings every month in downtown Baton Rouge. The structure doesn’t have enough room for 15 members currently.

Government transparency advocates widely panned the decision to give the governor more control over the ethics board, saying it could lead to cronyism and corruption.

Landry has also been in a dispute with the board over one of his own violations for the past year. The board charged Landry with failing to disclose trips taken on a campaign donor’s private plane to and from Hawaiil. At the time, Landry was going to and from a work conference as Louisiana’s attorney general.

Landry and the board members are still in negotiations about what an appropriate punishment for his violation should be.

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