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Arguments discounting ethics improvement lack merit

The small in number but loudly enthusiastic critics of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ethics reform agenda enacted in large part into law last year received another blow when, on behalf of his efforts, Jindal received more plaudits from professionals in the field of ethics. It underscores yet again that this criticism tends to come more from political agendas than based on any objective analysis.

When the 2008 First Extraordinary Session of the Louisiana Legislature adopted these sweeping changes, they were not the “gold standard” that Jindal proclaimed, but they did make substantial improvement. This has been recognized on more than one occasion. The Center for Public Integrity, which investigates financial disclosure laws, said they took Louisiana’s score from 43 to 99 out of 100. The Better Government Association computed that the state rose from almost the bottom to the top five states in its ranking of strength of states’ laws relating to transparency, ethics, and accountability in government. And now the Ethisphere Institute, an organization that desires to create and advance best practices in business ethics, ranked Jindal eighth in 2008 for his positive contribution to advancing their cause.

But if you listened to a small group of self-appointed arbiters outside of these groups, none of this seems to matter as they base fantastic assertions that ignore that the laws are indisputably tougher on that enforcement is lacking. the most hyperbolic of the bunch recently proclaimed, “There is no ethics reform, period. End of sentence …. It angers me for people to even think that there is. There is no enforcement.”

This is a neat rhetorical sidestep because Jindal has little control over that aspect of it, other than appointing members to the state’s Board of Ethics. Yet critics accuse him of weakening enforcement because of changes made to the board’s responsibilities which in reality strengthened enforcement. As noted elsewhere, a Jindal-led reform that removed juridical aspects from a board with political appointees and placed them into the hands of professionals heavily insulated from politics constitutes best practices accepted and used in several states.

(As part of this critique is the perverse notion that, because of this change all but one previous Board member resigned because without as much power the job just didn’t seem to be much fun to them any more thus delaying enforcement actions by months, by this delay enforcement was weakened. This neither was intended by Jindal nor was he responsible for this situation, as that lay in the hands of the quitters themselves.)

Jindal also appears to pick up blame for something he didn’t even initiate, the change in standard for burden of proof for prosecution of ethics charges. This only affects the lesser civil infractions (the major criminal cases remain unaffected), mirrors what many other states do and remains a lower burden of proof than in a few states. Jindal seemingly gets faulted because he didn’t fight hard enough to stop this or doesn’t now advocate reversing it, even as the standard is quite reasonable and Jindal did boost spending on ethics administration that may demand more resources to be able to prosecute to the higher standard.

There’s also another argumentative trick used by these critics related to this tactic, the judging of the standards to the ideal and because the new ones don’t reach it therefore they are worthless. While policy should aim to be the best, it makes absolutely no sense that ethics changes that took the state from the shoddy to the silver standard would be considered worthless just because they didn’t reach the uranium standard. You cannot be a credible or objective observer to admit anything other than the changes did create higher standards in a number of areas, as recognized by these national groups that specialize in the study of this area of policy, and to discount these new standards as meaningless or worse because they are not perfect is a sign of intellectual laziness, ignorance, or dishonesty in analysis.

The indisputable fact is that Jindal spurred institution of higher ethical standards, so far has put his money where his mouth is by increasing funding of the enterprise (and hopefully will continue to do so), and, if anything, has improved the quality of enforcement by his other changes. It’s not a perfect system, but to argue it is no better than what existed and/or is inconsequential tells us those making such arguments in doing so prefer to promote political agendas and to eschew analytical credibility in the process.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Sadow,

Recently, you seem to have assumed the role of chief defender of Bobby Jindal.

I liked your commentary better when you brought up issues that need to be addressed in Louisiana.

Surely Bobby has enough staff (political and otherwise) to defend him.

It's not like our state suddenly moved from the bottom of the heap to the top in any meaningful areas such as education, healthcare, etc.

A fan

Anonymous said...

I am on one of the boards that will require me to report financial information. The state has not even made a reporting form yet nor have they sent my any correspondence as to where I report or exactly what I report.

It is all talk. Jindal took the enforcement out of the law to get it through the legislature.

Jeff Sadow said...

I neither blindly defend nor reflexively criticize Jindal. Just because I point out that he has accomplished things makes me neither. Does anybody seriously believe that a tax cut would have gotten through with the likes of Blanco as governor, and why was not ethics reform pursued prior before Jindal got into office? I am not going to give Jindal credit where he doesn't deserve it, for, as I have pointed out numerous times, he was a follower rather than a leader with the tax cut and that his ethics package was an improvement but fell short of what could have been accomplished, but where he deserves it, I will credit him.

What disturbs are those who have, for whatever reason, adopted an anti-Jindal lens to what he does and thereby have suspended critical thinking and objectivity in evaluating his actions. That's what this post was about, a call for clear-headed judgment of Jindal's policy. No, the state hasn't improved much in terms of the things you mention, but it is unrealistic to expect that they would in one year. The jury is out on what Jindal's impact is on these, and it probably will be years before we really know. But there has been a difference made in the area of ethics and, given all the evidence, it seems fantastic to me that people dispute that it has not been positive. I see potential progress in other areas, too (health care and education) but this post was about ethics reform.