making local government more ethical

Legislative Bodies Should Not Be Providing Ethics Waivers

Erosion of an ethics program can occur in many ways (see the section of my book on backsliding). In Louisiana (where the state ethics program has jurisdiction over local officials), there has been a great deal of erosion, regarding the ethics board's role in the ethics process, the standard of proof, and the exemption of state legislators to the extent they are involved in legislative activity.

Now, according to an article in the Lafourche Parish Daily Comet this week, the state legislature has essentially taken the role of providing waivers. It provided an exemption to doctors in two parishes, to allow public hospital board members' relatives to be hired for health care jobs. In a series of bills just approved by the governor, it provided an exemption for doctors on a public hospital service district board from a two-year ban on having a contract or a job with that board or the facilities it oversees. It provided an exemption for members of a port commission and their family members to sell grain to a grain elevator overseen or owned by the commission.

These exemptions reflected very specific requests. For example, one exemption was made to allow the wife of a parish council member to work at one of the public service district hospitals.

This means that the waiver process, instead of being an adjunct to the ethics advice provided by an independent ethics commission, has now become part of individual legislators' constituent services. If you feel the ethics board will say No to your request, all you have to do is ask your state representative to get the legislature to say Yes. No one else in the legislature will care one way or the other. But precedents will be set, and they will be hard to change. Slowly, conflicts of interest, as well as the ethics board, will become something that people will rightfully ignore.

If you think I'm exaggerating the effect of these minor exemptions, here's what a state senator said during the debate of the exemption bills: "If you want to destroy ethics in this state, you do it one local bill at a time."

It's not that waivers are wrong, it's that elected officials should play no role in the waiver process. This should be left to the ethics board, and the creation of precedents should be carefully considered and limited, not left up to individual legislators and individual bills.

Fortunately, according to a recent article in the Baton Rouge Advocate, the biggest exemption bill, passed by the House, was rejected by the Senate. This bill would have exempted from the definition of “public employee” architects, engineers, landscape architects, certified public accountants, title abstractors, and land surveyors contracted to do work for state or local government. There was an attempt to include lawyers among the exemptees, but it failed.

The state ethics board takes the position, “We don’t look at what they are. We look at what they do.” This is the right approach. Anyone acting in the stead of the government, no matter their profession, should be fully subject to government ethics laws.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics