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Jindal needs to help Ethics Board end campaign loopholes

It seems like the investigation, under its own volition, of the Louisiana Board of Ethics concerning changes and its implementation of campaign finance law is beginning to bear fruit. You can tell because legislators are starting to carp about it.

Starting in January with a target date to finish by the end of the year, the Board hopes to provide clearer guidance in the way it interprets the law. Comments coming from its members indicate they believe current interpretations, such as the one offered by state Sen. Robert Adley, that “[t]he law says that campaign dollars can be used to anything that is part of the cost of serving your office,” is unclear and deserves more precision.

In fact, that is not at all what the law intends on the matter. R.S. 18:1483 broadly defines an expenditure as “a purchase, payment, advance, deposit, or gift, of money or anything
of value made for the purpose of supporting, opposing, or otherwise influencing the nomination or election of a person to public office,” and in R.S. 18:1505.2 is related to contributions in that “contributions received by a candidate or a political committee may be expended for any lawful purpose, but such funds shall not be used, loaned, or pledged by any person for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of a public office ….”

So it we are to buy Adley’s interpretation, the $1,700 he spent in 2010 on flowers sent to bereaved constituents and joyous graduates either is an attempt to influence his election and/or is relevant to the holding of a public office. Certainly in the case of the latter, all too many legislators have signed on to this travesty, as state Sen. Norby Chabert confirms when he claims that it’s part of south Louisiana culture to expect financial help from legislators.

It’s difficult to hold back the tears when Chabert spins his tale of woe on this subject: “Everyone kind of expects you to give till it hurts. We have to come out of pocket so much. We lose so much money holding office. We don’t make enough to support our efforts so quite often our campaign account is used as a supplemental account to support any other type of governmental activities you’re doing.”

Of course, on his latest financial disclosure form Chabert defines himself as a “full-time” employee of the Senate when legally is job is only part-time at over $32,000 a year; he and his wife own in full two businesses where they draw less than $5,000 a year each for each (who knew a bar could make so little money?); they have an Individual Retirement Account distribution of between $5,000 and $24,999 a year, a liability that exceeds $10,000, and immovable properties in excess of $200,000 in value. While this makes him better off financially than the majority of Louisianans, no doubt they feel his pain in his having to voluntarily run for and get elected to office and then have to dole out tokens to them because that’s what the culture demands.

Or maybe, as the Board seems to think, the culture should be changed and if that’s too much hardship for Chabert, he is free to serve his community in ways other than being elected to office. Does anybody seriously think that sending flowers has anything to do with the “holding of a public office,” or this is not a thinly-disguised emotional bribe to voters and preferment reward to florists as a “gift … made for the purpose of supporting, opposing, or otherwise influencing the nomination or election of a person to public office?”

Hopefully, the Board will release rules that specify that expenditures should be solely for the purposes of communications about a campaign, as in other states, and related directly to that. In other words, you don’t have to buy tickets to sporting events on the pretext you are campaigning during it. What ever happened to electioneering outside of the stadium, arena, or field as catching people as they enter and leave?

The state’s Administrative Procedure Act might give a chance for legislators to bite back by disapproving any rules of this kind that get forwarded, as Adley implicitly threatened when he said the Board should go to the Legislature first to change the law’s wording. But statements by Gov. Bobby Jindal can reduce this possibility to close to zero. R.S. 49:969 and 49:970 gives the Legislature and governor, respectively, the ability to veto such rule-making. Yet if Jindal announced after the rules’ promulgation in the Louisiana Register that he will do no such thing and thinks they are good, his backing will discourage legislative opposition and no majority will form against the changes.

This investigation needs to proceed to a finished product, and in the direction of tightening envisioned from the public statements of board members, with Jindal’s blessing.

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