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More sour grapes harvested over needed ethics changes

For many years, critics hounded the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program Board, saying it was an ineffective investigator and adjudicator of ethics standards for candidates and officials both elected and appointed in the state. Sweeping changes were made in the area of ethics over the past year, and suddenly a whole bunch of revisionism is coming down the pike that at its root is a vineyard full of sour grapes and resentment at ending power and privilege.

The latest attempt comes from the former administrator Gray Sexton, who quit last year when it became apparent the new legal standard taking effect shortly would require the holder of the post to work at it full-time and disclose any private clients. He claimed that move was a kind of political payback for his investigations of politicians. This joins assertions of similar motivations made by some of the 10 (out of 11) Board members who resigned in the past couple of months, in the wake of other legal changes that also required stricter financial disclosure from these inexpert political appointees and that the adjudicatory power of it was being passed over to trained civil servants. One longtime opponent of Gov. Bobby Jindal claimed he orchestrated all of this out of pique at receiving a fine for an inadvertent omission in a report which his campaign turned in itself and swiftly took blame. Sexton also criticized the creation of a higher standard for burden of proof to determine guilt of alleged violators.

It takes very little in the way of common sense and logic to doubt the seriousness of this interpretation. So Sexton thought there was some vendetta against him culminating in the Gov. Kathleen Blanco era? Maybe, but regardless what’s telling is the supposed leverage being used against him was simple disclosure and a desire to get him to focus his full energies on the job. Why would he consider that so injurious to himself that he had to resign over it (and the Board, who hired him, and he tried to get around that by a contractual arrangement which was scuttled by negative publicity)? Such a reaction on his, made over a year before the law was to go into effect, suggests either he actually didn’t take the job that seriously and was really more interested in his private practice, or that there were aspects about his private work that would have raised eyebrows in relation to his Board work.

There’s another interpretation that makes much more sense given the facts of Sexton’s resignation and of those Board members: they enjoyed the power and the privilege of having the ability to visit penalties on the state’s wayward political leaders (part of Sexton’s and his successor’s job was to direct the Board, inexpert in ethics law and many members also not trained in the legal process, in making judgments) without themselves having to live up to the same standards. Even, as the many critics complained, they weren’t doing a very good job of it and now some like Sexton out of resentment for feeling it necessary to resign their posts try to distract the public from that issue by suggesting things actually will be worse.

Times have changed. By removing the Board’s adjudicatory power and creating the higher burden of proof, Louisiana is following the best practices of other states (which only seems logical since in the past critics argued that the state ought to do so in a number of areas, such as lower taxes, less constrictive regulation, rational spending priorities, etc.). Yes, Board service will be far less glamorous and being the program’s administrator will convey much less political power and relative compensation – but those are the motivators we do not want in ethics administration. We want people who will be happy to serve the public not because they get to exercise power, but because good service is the right thing to do. This only can improve ethics administration.

These outcomes are what we’re likelier to get under the new paradigm, as long as funding for it is adequate given increased reporting requirements and the increased burden of proof. So, good riddance to the likes of Sexton and some ex-Board members who, by the looks of things, were there for the wrong reasons and didn’t do that good of a job anyway. And all the spin in the world they try to put on this to protect their reputations doesn’t change that fact.

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