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Ethics members still push flawed retrenchment idea

From the statements that continue to emanate from members of Louisiana’s Board of Ethics concerning the possibilities of political interference in ethics adjudication, you have to hope they bring the a higher level of information and logic to their roles on it.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, they keep pushing this fiction that allowing the Board itself to adjudicate cases, as was the case until a couple of years ago, contains less possibility for political interference than the present setup where administrative law judges with civil service protections deliberately designed to minimize political interference perform this function. The latest reiteration of this erroneous view comes from the Board Chairman Frank Simoneaux from a larger discussion about Board reform.

Simoneaux argues that another board to perform adjudication with political appointees should be created. This follows a model suggested by the Public Affairs Research Council and is one followed by several other states. But that only would create the same potential for political interference if the same method of selection is used.

The Board has it members selected for fixed terms directly separately by the governor, House, and Senate, from nominations produced by presidents of independent (that is, private) accredited universities in the state. Even if nominations come from sources outside of state government, this does not mean that they are nonpolitical (nor that their nominators cannot be pressured – there are plenty of ways the state can regulate these institutions) nor that those who get nominated do not bring their own agendas to their potential jobs that may align with certain political forces in the state. The selection process then clearly invites the chosen to get their jobs on the basis of politicians’ beliefs, if this is part of their agenda, based upon who would be most favorable to them in any potential ethics case.

Contrast this with the selection process for the judges. Several dozen of these civil servants (an example job description is here) are employed in the Division of Administrative Law at any given time. They must meet merit qualifications in the hiring process and after their probationary period have full civil service protections. After a couple of layers of bureaucracy, their ultimate agency boss is the DAL director who approves of the hire and is appointed by the governor for a fixed six-year term with Senate confirmation. Among their many potential duties are to adjudicate ethics cases.

To adjudicate in ethics cases, further insulation is present. Of the judges, annually seven are chosen randomly to hear cases that year. For each case, three of the seven are randomly chosen. Supervisors have no authority over them in these matters. And it is worth reaffirming that civil service regulations prohibit any outside interference with standards that make it impossible to cut pay and virtually impossible to fire them as means by which to pressure the kinds of decisions they make.

It’s worth restating because Simoneaux doesn’t appear to have a clue that these regulations exist, which is the only thing that can explain how he possibly could think there’s a greater chance of putting political pressure on ALJ’s than on Board members. Consider the following scenarios:

Under the present system, in order to exert political pressure on a decision, let’s say a governor wishes to do so, and thus makes contact with the DAL director. Subtly, his representative tells the director a case that has been sent over by the Board must be decided a certain way or he won’t reappoint the director.

First of all, given the long length of her term there’s a decent chance that governor won’t even be in office when the director’s term expires, and with Senate confirmation required the governor can’t even assure that nomination again is tantamount to retaining the job. Second, in order for the director even to have any influence over assigning the case to presumed “favorable” judges, she would have to go through an extraordinary amount of corrupt and hard-to-disguise behavior in (if it’s coming up the next year) rigging the selection of the seven judges and/or rigging the three-judge panel selection. Finally, in tandem with this or alternatively, she would have to undergo a very risky course of action which could result in legal action against her to try to pressure judges to decide a certain way when it is strictly prohibited by regulations with many recourses by employees so threatened.

Contrast this with a similar scenario under the old system, which is proposed as the selection method for this new adjudicatory panel. The governor’s agent calls up the Board member, subtly says he cannot expect to be reappointed later this term or after the governor’s reelection if a case gets decided a certain way … and that’s all there is to it. Instead of four layers of insulation (chain of command, two randomizations, regulations that protect), there are zero. And Simoneaux (and PAR) seriously believe the new system is more open to political manipulation? (Not to mention they cast aspersions on the integrity of the entire DAL which decides cases in many different areas besides ethics using procedures which are actually less insulated.)

Apparently, so does Board member Scott Schneider who at least tries to find a different rationale to argue the same point. He asserts that because making these decisions is part of a job, that the “livelihood” of the ALJ’s could be pressured, whereas less ability to pressure exists because the Board appointees do not serve in those positions as their employment.

Apart from the facts that, as demonstrated above, it is nearly impossible to exert political pressure on judges and it’s a bit unsettling to imply unintentionally that Board service is a hobby by comparison, Schneider’s argument also logically fails. Lack of being employed by an institution does not mean that other avenues to put pressure on a person serving for that institution do not exist. Board members are there obviously because they want to be, so any hint that they might not be pending a certain decision certainly is a nontrivial inducement that, by comparison with the protection afforded judges, has much more potential to influence a decision.

Simoneaux is right about one thing, that the Legislature is unlikely to revisit this aspect of ethics adjudication – because it’s a better system also currently used by several states. While some other changes would be beneficial, going backwards on this is not the answer.


Good Jindal plan for higher education needs refining

Legislation backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal regarding finance and performance of Louisiana’s higher education is welcome and necessary, but questions remain about it that must be answered satisfactorily for it to truly revolutionize the provision of this service.

The bill would allow any institution of higher learning to raise its tuition 10 percent a year until it reached the level of its southern peer average, and after that five percent, with a special higher level set for Louisiana State University Baton Rouge. In exchange for being able to have this power, institutions must raise admission standards and hit graduation targets within the next six years.

This is an excellent answer to a system that has lacked coordination that misallocated resources through a failure to demand enough excellence from students, interjected too many marginal students into the system or into inappropriate places in it, and did not demand enough accountability. Still, for it to work optimally, several aspects must be addressed.


Landrieu right to ignore group's corrupted policy view

In Sen. Mary Landrieu’s world, it’s bad enough that her opponents hammer her for doing the wrong thing, and then it’s made worse when her allies on the left pile on – even when the criticism is undeserved and she’s right.

Recently, ads began to run against Landrieu criticizing her for her support of legislation that disallows the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions which the agency now is in the process of doing. Not only is her view that these decisions should be a matter of law passed by Congress intuitively appealing – the people’s elected representatives should decide here, not unaccountable bureaucrats who allow themselves to be influenced and captured by special interests and ideologies – but on this issue it also is constitutionally correct.

Yet this has drawn the ire of an interest group that calls itself Catholics United – although the only thing connecting it to Roman Catholicism seems to be its name given its far left agenda and support of politicians that often take contrary stances to the Church’s teachings. This is why it’s surprising that the group, throughout its history having supported pro-abortion politicians, should attack Landrieu, baptized Catholic yet faithfully pro-abortion.

Perhaps a more appropriate description of the religious beliefs of this group is faith in scientifically unverified environmentalism, which leads to a delicious irony in the ad’s message. It implies that Pope Benedict XVI would support their agenda that Landrieu they argue opposes. But in fact, early in his papacy he condemned exactly the attitude evinced by the group, where he counseled that prudence and basing conclusions on firm evidence rather than on ideology is a necessary part of forming a response to the issue.

While we might expect a pressure group that claims to base its views on religious belief to make public policy assertions based upon faith and not science, it performs a disservice to allow its faith in the existence of significant man-made global warming to substitute for science in drawing its conclusions and in the process to mischaracterize the religion on which it asserts its belief exists. Landrieu and Catholics can safely disregard the blandishments of this group which neither comport to Catholic faith nor to science.


Help me out: is Edwards biography worth buying?

When its publication was announced, despite my obvious interest in Louisiana politics, I hesitated to buy veteran TV journalist’s Leo Honeycutt’s authorized biography of Prisoner #03128-095, known before his conviction on corruption charges as former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. After hearing more about it, my reluctance remains.

Initially, my main reason was because in doing so it would line the pockets of Prisoner #03312-095, known before his conviction as former statewide elected official Jim Brown. This is because Brown, convicted of lying to investigators (involving a case where Edwards also was indicted, but acquitted), has been singularly unrepentant in insisting on his innocence despite exhaustive appeals where impartial courts continually reaffirmed his conviction. Besides producing his own self-authored book out attempting this argument, Brown published Honeycutt’s.

I don’t wish to reward his inability to admit fault with a transfer of my money to Brown, but a pretty good argument could be made that Edwards was the second-most influential figure in the conduct of state government in the 20th century, behind only former Gov. Huey P. Long and jockeying with the likes of former Govs. Earl K. Long and John M. Parker. Therefore, this biography could be of great value and something to own.

Then last week I was able to catch an interview of Honeycutt by Moon Griffon on his program. This constituted good fortune for me since I rarely get a chance to hear more than a few minutes of the show and it just so happened I was on the road (to participate in a project; look for it on screen within the next few months) so I could listen to its entirety and especially because it could help resolve my dilemma: would the tome’s contents sound so fascinating that it would override my sense of rewarding those only when integrity was present in them?

Thus it is with a feeling of uncertainty that I have to report the interview did not get me to make up my mind either way. My continued ambivalence doesn’t stem from the information that seems present in it, but, rather, from qualms I now have about the author’s approach, taken from my more than two decades of being a researcher in academia and my modest career in journalism.

Warning sign #1: Honeycutt said he tried to lay out a case than neither glorified nor vilified Edwards, but the impression the vast majority of Moon’s callers got was that Honeycutt was defending a politician (in terms of an overall assessment of his value to the state, not his crimes) that (given the majority of Moon’s audience) they brooked no love for. As a result, Honeycutt started to become defensive and essentially began telling callers they didn’t know what they were talking about, saying he dealt in “facts,” he had 1,700+ footnotes to back him up, and he had spent years doing this so, the impression he conveyed was, he knew a lot more than any caller might about this and therefore he was above criticism on the matter.

In academia, when somebody does not feel entirely confident in their work, they will make appeals to external authority like this, rattling off large numbers of sources and citations. That’s all well and good, but the proof of an argument rests not just on source material or even its comprehensiveness, but how convincingly it is woven into an narrative the validity of which we can test using not just a selection of the data, but all of it. Since I haven’t read the work I can offer no judgment on that, but it’s not a good sign in terms of the quality of the argument in my experience when this kind of defense of it is used.

Warning sign #2: One caller mentioned about how Edwards contributed to the perception of Louisiana as a “laughingstock,” to which Honeycutt took exception. He argued that, on a per capita basis regarding convictions for crimes of political corruption, in recent years according to different sources Louisiana ranked only fifth or sixth and therefore, since it was not first, it was not a “laughingstock.”

But this view obviously begs the question, can only the worst state be a “laughingstock?” Are the other 49 exonerated no matter how much political corruption exists in them? I would argue that, even if Louisiana doesn’t lead the pack, the continuing high incidence of corrupt behavior in the state (look at this guy) does continue to make us a “laughingstock.” And if somebody is going to take the line of reasoning on this that Honeycutt sounded like he was doing on the air, then I have to question the analytical power he brings to his subject and whether there’s much of value in a book like that.

Warning sign #3: Another caller related that he had been a state policeman who had been assigned around Edwards many times and that the ex-governor had a very arrogant attitude towards the troopers. Honeycutt agreed there was an air of arrogance about him but expressed surprise at this particular expression of it and said he really hadn’t talked to anybody in the course of doing research with that view. Griffon then related a similar story from someone he had known who also had served in the state police and gave some context as to perhaps why. That two people within a span of a few minutes would relay some information about an aspect of his subject that apparently had eluded the author does not encourage the casual listener to think the job done was very thorough or complete if we are to understand fully the man and his motivations for policy.

Therefore, I remain in limbo on its potential purchase for my voluminous Louisiana politics library. The subject is fascinating but my confidence in the quality of the work, without having read it, was shaken by this interview. Granted, these are little things gotten off a radio show, but evidence is evidence and it's not in the right direction.

Honeycutt has said he wished to have the work avoid being influenced by Edwards’ charm and charisma, but the last caller to the broadcast said she thought exactly that had happened to his effort. If this ended up as hagiography rather than biography, it’s not something I would want. But I welcome any comments about it readers wish to leave who have read it – maybe you all can help me finally decide.


LA should not miss chance to protect citizens' liberty

Perhaps Louisiana has its regular legislative sessions later than in any other state, but that does not means it should miss the opportunity to ensure that its citizenry is not forced into following suboptimal policy where state inaction could lead to deprivation of liberty.

In response to the Democrat-controlled federal government attempt to force Americans to pay into an altered health care system higher costs for lower quality, over 30 states have or are enacting into law provisions that would prevent the federal government from curtailing people’s liberty in their choices about whether to have health insurance. These do not prevent citizens from participating in federal health insurance programs, only recognizing their freedom to opt out of them without penalty.

While an argument could be made that the Commerce Clause (Art. I Sec. 8) of the Constitution could be stretched to interpret this kind of power as a shared power with the federal government and therefore it would take precedence over states’ wishes if it legislated in that area, more than a couple of hundred years of judicial recognition of the general police power of states should prove judicially negating in that regard, affirming that states have supreme power in the abilities to regulate the health, safety, and morals of the public. Thus, there is a very reasonable expectation that these laws are not moot exercises.

That the Democrat effort on this issue seems to be running out of steam does not reduce the imperative among the states to legislate this protection. Still simmering are these plans, not yet dead politically, and there’s no guarantee in the future that a majority of elected officials will not try to take the people and country off the rails in this area again.

So far, no enterprising legislator in Louisiana has prefiled such a bill. Doing so and its passage into law would perform prodigious service to the state.