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Ethics Board resignations likely to bring improvement

In the past week, most of the members of the Louisiana Ethics Board have resigned. This is no accident, and it is a positive, healthy development for enforcement of government officials’ ethical practices in the state.

This year, three major changes, for the most part without qualification beneficial, have occurred concerning ethics administration in the state. First, board members must comply with ethics standards of increased rigor, which, while onerous, vitally assure the public that those who bring ethics charges against others themselves appear to be above reproach. Second, the board’s adjudication power was spliced off, thereby removing it from the hands of political appointees into a professional system of trained bureaucrats which is considered best practice in other states. Third (and perhaps the only change that may not be for the better if the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program does not get the increased resources needed to pursue this; so far it has been), the standard of proof has been strengthened for bringing a case before administrative law judges which again aligns the state more in the direction of others.

To put it another way, the costs perceived for serving by existing board members have gone up and the benefits in their minds of serving have gone down. They now must take on the burden of extra reporting on financial information, and simultaneously they have lost the ability to visit punishment on officials and their discretion has been lowered in their ability to bring cases in any event. More bluntly, the position is less fun to them because they have lost political power and it requires more revelation of their personal lives.

Resignation explanations have not addressed this, of course, because none want to admit that an attraction of the job was the exercise of power. One member, a political opponent of Gov. Bobby Jindal who as chief executive appoints a majority on the board, attempted to deflect attention away from the obvious by implying that Jindal somehow was making life rough on the Board because it hit his 2007 gubernatorial campaign with a fine. But the absolute vacuity of that opinion is evident when considering Jindal immediately admitted fault (in fact, correcting the error on its own which made the matter open-and-shut) and tried as quickly as possible to take its punishment and move on. It makes no sense that Jindal would waste resources to bully and badger members to resign in retaliation when he had far bigger fish to fry over three legislative sessions, so this assertion by its weakness in fact verifies the idea that this is a cover story to deflect attention from the reality that the resignations are a result of serving on the board becoming less suited to its former members’ political needs.

That’s fine because nobody is forced to serve, and that they are happening now right as most of the changes to ethics administration are getting ready to come into effect is because those resigning may have hoped the Legislature in its recently-concluded regular session might have altered some of these things – another sign that resigning occurred because board service no longer fits their individual objectives. And it’s positive for the state, because the members that will filter onto the board over the coming months hopefully will have a different attitude. With much less allure of power from board service, with the increased handicap of reporting requirements, new members won’t be there so much so that they can exercise power, but so that they can serve the public in an important but potentially less-aggrandizing way than their predecessors did.

While unfortunate that decisions will be delayed as a result of the many resignations, in the long run new members will see their jobs in a way more compatible to the goals of the reformed Board, and this cannot harm the quality of ethics administration in Louisiana.

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