making local government more ethical

Ethics Professionals Need to Defend Their Own

Louisiana legislators do not seem to like the state Board of Ethics. Earlier this year, two of them sued the Board of Ethics, based on a decision it made. Now the Legislature has passed a bill clearly intended to get rid of the Board's chief counsel, Gray Sexton.

The first version of the bill, House Bill 532, required that Sexton no longer do outside work after August 2008. The bill was amended to require that Sexton disclose all of his private legal clients in the interim. This part of the bill became effective immediately, upon signing by the governor, and Sexton immediately resigned, because this disclosure would constitute a violation of his professional ethical obligations. The lawyers who wrote the bill knew he would do this.

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Legislators are saying that this is not about getting rid of Sexton, but about disclosure, because one of his clients is a contractor whose involvement in local political campaigns has prompted ethics complaints, including one by a sponsor of the bill.

Although, of course, the bill does not mention Sexton by name, it is a bill directed toward one individual alone, something that is itself ethically questionable. The Board of Ethics appears to support Sexton on the issue of disclosure, but the Legislature ignored it. A legislature that wants to handle its own ethics problems scarcely cares about such things as the independence of an ethics board.

I find it interesting how often politicians do unethical things in order to deal with ethics professionals and commissions. I know that I and others here at City Ethics have been falsely attacked and accused of being unethical ourselves. In Connecticut, for example, the ethics commission's executive director was hounded out of office with accusations of unethical conduct. This clearly goes with the territory.

Ethics administrators should certainly not be above the law, but the law should not be used to target them directly. Nor should they be falsely attacked by people who do not like their positions or decisions. It would be nice if COGEL would form a committee that would respond to instances such as this, defending ethics professionals and, at the same time, educating the public about the importance of independence in government ethics. A COGEL anti-defamation committee, anyone?