Wednesday, August 10, 2011
By Walter Pierce
Louisiana’s ‘gold standard’ ethics reform has made it harder to collect fines from those who violate campaign-finance laws.
The Louisiana Board of Ethics’ most recent meeting in Baton Rouge was a busy one. About 35 items on the agenda — the bulk of the day’s business — concerned requests by office holders, former candidates, political action committees and lobbyists that the board waive fines assessed against them, mainly for being tardy filing any of the myriad reports the state requires of those who participate in Louisiana politics.
From the Acadiana area, Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre and Police Chief Bruce Broussard, they of the unrepentant speed trap on Interstate 49, were denied requests that $1,000 fines against each be waived. The same was true for state Rep. Mike Huval of Breaux Bridge, whose $180 fine was upheld, along with St. Landry Parish Constable Ronnald Dugas’ $1,500 fine.
For political rookies, Louisiana’s campaign finance laws can be a mine field, and accruing thousands of dollars in fines is routine.
A recent analysis by newspaper chain Gannett finds that more than 340 current office holders and former candidates owe the state of Louisiana more than $1 million in fines for filing late campaign finance reports dating back at least to the early 1990s. Political action committees are on the hook for about $75,000, with the United Democratic Ballot Inc. out of New Orleans owing the most at $14,000.
Fines range from $40 per day for local offices up to $100 a day for statewide campaigns, with a cap at $2,500 per report. Consequently, candidates who file multiple reports late can generate many thousands of dollars in fines. But getting people to pay those fines isn’t as easy as levying them — an issue that will have the Board of Ethics seeking a judgment in the matter in state district court soon.
“The question is, are [fines] collectable?” says Kathleen Allen, the board’s chief administrator. After issuing a fine against an individual or political action committee, the board sends notification via letter that a fine has been levied. If the board receives no response by the deadline for payment, it may choose to seek a judgment against the violator in district court. For violations over $500, the board, based on a 2006 agreement, turns the case over to a special collections division within the state attorney general’s office, which has an incentive to make the violator pay: The AG’s office gets a 25 percent cut.
But not everyone is “collectible,” as Allen puts it, meaning they may be hard to track down or not have the means to pay the fine. “If we are able to get to the judgment stage and have those hearings and give them the notice, if we get to the judgment ... some are in bankruptcy,” Allen explains.
|Gold Standard or Fool’s Gold?|
And here’s where it gets complicated, and why many in Louisiana believe ethics enforcement is toothless when it comes to campaign finance: Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2008 “gold standard” ethics reform package created the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, a seven-member panel of administrative law judges under the auspices of the Division of Administrative Law. The EAB “conducts public hearings to receive evidence on facts alleged in formal charges brought by the Louisiana Board of Ethics and determines whether any violation of any provision of law within the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics has occurred,” according to the EAB’s website.
But a recent court ruling in Baton Rouge threw into dispute which body — the ethics board or the EAB — has enforcement power over campaign finance fines that have gone unpaid. The Advocate reported recently that the EAB declined more than a dozen hearings for campaign finance cases citing a lack of jurisdiction. The EAB, according to the report, believes that unless a fine is appealed, it’s not EAB’s problem.
According to Allen, the ethics board will soon seek a declaratory judgment in district court in Baton Rouge hoping to settle the matter. “Where we are right now is, if there’s not payment, who’s conducting the initial hearings to obtain those judgments?” she says. “That’s what will be pursued, to get that question answered.”
In the meantime, collecting fines for campaign finance violations in Louisiana has come to a screeching halt.
In the backdrop of the enforcement problems with the ethics board and the EAB is that 2006 deal with the attorney general’s office giving the AG a 25 percent cut on collections of outstanding ethics fines.
Yet even that is yielding mixed results. Al Donovan Jr. of River Ridge, a Democrat and former lead attorney in the Edwin Edwards administration who came in a distant second in the 2003 secretary of state’s race against Republican Fox McKeithen, has yet to pay a dime on the $42,000 in fines he owes the board for several late filings. The same holds for Shreveport attorney JoAnn Gines, who accrued more than $23,000 in fines for a failed district-court judge bid way back in 1994.
But former Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, an on-again, off-again candidate for various elected offices who racked up a whopping $45,440 in fines — the largest amount according to our review of board records — for failing to file or filing late in races in 2000 and 2004, has entered into a payment plan with the board. To date, according to the board’s website, Fahrenholtz has paid about $15,500 of his obligation, leaving him still with an almost $30,000 tab.
Fahrenholtz, in fact, was disqualified by a New Orleans judge for failing to indicate on qualifying papers in the 2008 race for the 2nd Congressional District that he had an outstanding debt with the ethics board. The candidate challenged the disqualification and the judge did agree with his argument that a state ethics fine doesn’t bar a candidate from seeking federal office, but she still banned him from the ballot for lying on his qualifying papers about having an outstanding debt with the board.
In the five years since the AG has served as a collection agency for ethics fines, according to Gannett, nearly 130 cases totaling more than $520,000 in fines have been processed. Almost half of that amount — about $242,000 — has been collected, and 49 of the 130 cases have been paid in full.
The majority of individuals on the board’s list of outstanding fines are candidates who lost elections, some of whom face fines that are larger than the amount they spent on their failed campaigns. Short of some tough measures by the state, and a resolution to the squabble between the board and the EAB, many who owe fines no doubt see little value in shelling out big bucks in fines for their vain twirls in the political arena.
But for those in office, or for former candidates facing fines and seeking to re-enter the political sphere, the ethics board has a new tool at its disposal. Jindal signed into law this summer a bill that now requires candidates to have paid their ethics fines in full before they can qualify to run for office. Previously, a candidate could enter into a payment plan with the board and then qualify, but as Allen pointed out at a House committee hearing this summer, many of those candidates who owed fines and entered into a payment plan in order to qualify, particularly those who lost their respective elections, simply walked away from the payment plan after the election.
For the Oct. 22 election, the new law will affect only one candidate in Lafayette Parish, according to our review of outstanding fines: Stephen Ortego, who recently announced his campaign for the state House District 39 seat and who owes a $780 fine related to his failed bid for the same seat in 2007.
[Correction: This story originally indicated, and still does in our print issue, that Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin owed $1,900 — of an original $2,000 fine for filing a late supplemental report connected to his 2007 campaign — to the Ethics Board. Shelvin paid the balance of his fine on Aug. 4, during the writing of this article but after we had spoken with Kathleen Allen.]
Yet the new law hardly placates critics of Jindal’s ethics reform package. Shreveport demographics consultant Elliott Stonecipher, an outspoken critic of the ballyhooed “gold standard,” calls it a “ deliberate wrecking of ethics law enforcement” and a “gimmick” designed to burnish Jindal’s image during “the then-underway hustle for the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential campaign ticket.”
In a recent email to members of The Independent’s editorial board, Stonecipher goes further and deeper in his analysis of the 2008 ethics reform process: “Notably, several of the ‘legislative leaders’ on board to eviscerate ethics enforcement had serious ethics violation cases against them which were under investigation at that time, but any public mention of that fact was illegal under state law. Literally, these ‘leaders’ were writing and passing laws which would specifically protect them when their cases reached any such point of need.
“All of the worst predictions have now come to pass. Our ethics administration has, effectively, ceased functioning. Louisiana is now in a far worse position to police ethics laws than at any time since their 1960s origin. Such is Jindal’s legacy, whether he rushes off to some new job tomorrow, or hangs around for another term as governor.”
A federal jury found attorney Daniel Stanford guilty Friday afternoon on eight of 13 counts for his role in the Curious Goods conspiracy.
Lafayette City-Court Judge Francie Bouillion has served on the bench for two decades since winning a special election to replace Judge Kaliste Saloom when he retired in 1994.
The magazine's senior football writer also predicts a break-out year for Saints fourth-year running back Mark Ingram.
Gulf Coast ceremonies marking the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina have begun.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says there is little known about the effects of tiger prawns on indigenous Louisiana shrimp. But, officials say the reports they're seeking will help state biologists monitor the distribution of the prawns and determine the possible presence of spawning populations.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh rested his regulars and watched with delight as Ray Rice's backups ground out 214 yards rushing in a 22-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Google vs. Amazon in drone race; more deaths in Syria; Russia escalates Ukraine conflict and more national and international news for Friday, August 29, 2014.
High-profile criminal defense attorney Daniel Stanford awaits his fate in the Curious Goods conspiracy trial.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is set to put the kibosh on the legal ownership of monkeys trained to help the disabled, and the agency wants to know what you think.
A federal judge on Thursday asked lawyers battling over Louisiana's new, restrictive abortion law for an agreement that apparently could let clinics stay open — at least for a while — after the law takes effect Sept. 1.
An abortion rights organization wants a federal judge to block enforcement of Louisiana's new abortion law while its lawsuit to overturn the law makes its way through court.
Republican presidential prospects Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are planning to speak at an Iowa Christian conservative event in September.
The attention surrounding Victor White III has spiked with the release of last week’s autopsy report, which has raised a number of serious questions about the night of his death and has put the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office under an increased wave of scrutiny as more national media outlets are jumping on the story, most recently seen on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."
Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
Police say a 56-year-old Lafayette man walking behind a dump truck died when the truck hit him as it was backing up.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a proud papa of new baby girl.
The books on Louisiana's last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.
The Iberia Parish Coroner responded Monday to the attention surrounding the questionable shooting of Victor White III, a black man from New Iberia who died April 2 while in the custody of local law enforcement.
Two months after lawmakers agreed to create a $40 million higher education incentive fund, no decisions have been made about how to divide the money.
With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.