Claiming Ethics

Bob and Bobby create an opening for Louisiana Democrats

Turning Jindal's Ethics Campaign Gambit into Transformative Reform of Louisiana Politics

Bob Odom and Governor-elect Bobby Jindal would make a political odd couple in just about anyone's book, but the two have combined to provide Louisiana Democrats an opportunity to redefine themselves in a way not possible prior to now.

The elements at work here are the state's eagerness for ethics reform combined with the way Jindal has continued to hawk that issue since the election and Odom's decision not to contest the run-off against Republican Mike Strain.

Bob

Let's start with Odom's decision to drop out. It's no secret that Republicans were prepared to wage a campaign of innuendo against Odom based on charges that East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Doug Moreau brought against him almost five years ago.

Moreau, a Republican, fought doggedly to keep alive his case against Odom, even though the charges were repeatedly thrown out by the courts for various legal deficiencies.

Despite Odom's legal victory, in the court of public opinion he had been successfully tarred as corrupt — despite the fact that none of Moreau's charges ever stuck.

Odom is an astute politician and can read election numbers as well as anyone. He saw that his three Republican opponents in the October 20 primary took almost 60 percent of the vote in his race. His prospects for election were slim. So, rather than put his family and friends through what promised to be a mean and expensive campaign, he withdrew from the race.

In so doing, Odom also cleared the deck of old line Democratic state officeholders (Mitch Landrieu is squeaky-clean but a hybrid of old and new politics; he's still in office today probably because Republicans couldn't find anyone other than a bankrupt musician willing to seek the job).

Odom's departure opens the door for a new era of Democratic leaders who are untainted by scandal and who recognize that ethics reform is more than a campaign issue — it is essential for the state's economic well being.

Bobby

Governor-elect Jindal has continued to tout ethics reform in his post-election thank you tour and public statements.

The Alexandria Town Talk's coverage of Jindal's October 29th visit in CENLA included these comments from the governor-elect:

"I think to restore the people's trust in the government we should make it crystal clear that ... we want our elected leaders to be free of even the perception of corruption."

He added, "I don't think it's too high of a standard to say that people who are under indictment shouldn't be on standing committees, shouldn't be overseeing the government."

Then there were these observations:

He said Tuesday that one of his first acts as governor would be to call the Legislature into special session to pass ethics-reform legislation.

As part of his plan for ethics reform, Jindal has said in his prepared platform that "members of the Legislature and all staff serving or sitting on a standing committee" should be prohibited from continuing to serve if indicted.

He said the Legislature would have to pass such legislation for it to become effective.

"We're not saying that they were convicted," Jindal said of forcing people to step down from committees once indicted. "We are saying, however, it's important for us to show that our elected leaders are above even the hint of impropriety, even the hint of corruption.

"We hold our elected officials to a higher standard."

He cited an LSU study in arguing that Louisiana has to eliminate "the perception that it's who you know and not what you know" in order to attract new business and federal aid to rebuild.

Jindal said another part of his ethics plan would require elected officials to disclose the sources of their income and debt.

The key phrases in these statements are that Jindal recognizes that the "hint of corruption" is as bad for Louisiana as actual corruption because it re-enforces "the perception that it's who you know and not what you know" in order to succeed in our state.

Taking Jindal's views on face value, it is apparent that the governor-elect's ethics agenda fails to measure up to his own standard of removing even the hint of corruption.

How so?

Because the governor-elect does not mention campaign finance reform anywhere in his ethics pronouncements.

And, ethics reform without campaign finance reform is a partisan scam.

Campaign Finance Reform

Republican contributors have ridden roughshod over Louisiana's campaign finance laws in this election cycle, using legally and ethically questionable means to circumvent campaign contribution caps established in state law.

The technique used involves individuals controlling multiple limited liability companies (LLCs) to use each LLC to make the maximum contribution allowable in the particular races of interest. In this way, an individual can use multiple corporate shells to make multiple contributions to a single campaign.

This practice does not pass the "hint of corruption" test Jindal wants applied to legislators. It should be noted that the governor-elect's campaign booked in excess of $700,000 in contributions from individuals and companies via this tactic.

Other statewide Republican candidates as well as candidates for the House and Senate also benefited from this tactic which, again, raises at least a hint of corruption.

Then there was the matter of the $50,000 in contributions Jindal's campaign received from a Colorado firm and its officers that has tried in the past to place a hazardous waste site in the Alsen community in East Baton Rouge Parish. The money was headline news on the front page of the Baton Rouge Advocate (it's in their archives now, but here's a link to a discussion of the coverage).

It certainly raised eyebrows and will draw further scrutiny to that company's efforts to open that site.

The simplest, surest way to eliminate what are — for now — only hints of corruption would be to overhaul Louisiana's campaign finance laws.

The first step would be to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns, as many other states (including Texas) have done.

The second would be to adopt some of the reporting standards now in place under federal election laws, particularly requiring contributors to list their employers and whether or not their employers serve as government contractors.

These two reforms would bring a new level of transparency to Louisiana politics — and transparency and openness are the best cures for corruption (or even the perception of corruption).

Campaign Finance Reform the key to Democratic Renewal

With Odom off the field and with the decks cleared for a new generation of Democratic leaders to emerge in coming years, Democrats should embrace the full Jindal ethics agenda but push the new governor to live up to his claim that he wants to eliminate even the hint of corruption in Louisiana politics.

Corporate contributions to political are a legacy of the "pay to play" system that Jindal purports to want to end. If his actions are to match his rhetoric, he can be pushed on the issue of banning corporate contributions to political campaigns.

He might back it. Republicans in the Legislature will probably balk, prodded no doubt by the heads of the corporations that contributed so lavishly to their individual campaigns, their party and to groups like the LCRM.

Democrats can seize the high ethical ground here by pushing to ban corporate contributions and to require contributors to provide more information about the sources of their income.

It takes two to corrupt: someone willing to take the money, yes; but some other party has to be willing to offer it.

Any proposal that purports to be ethics reform but which does nothing to close the loopholes on the campaign finance side of the ledger (where favors are most often bought) is not serious ethics reform. It is another empty gesture designed to convey the impression of addressing an issue of widespread concern while leaving the door open for some form of the activity to continue.

Campaign Finance Reform and Voter Turnout

Campaign finance reform (and Republican reluctance to embrace it) can be a winning issue for Louisiana Democrats. Voters understand that big money in politics has drowned out their voices and their concerns in the legislative and regulatory processes.

The author Walter Mosley, appearing on a C-SPAN Book TV program last weekend, commented something to the effect that most Americans now understand that politics is dominated not by Democrats or Republicans, but by what he called "the Money Party." As a result, people have no faith in either party to respond to their real needs.

A story in today's Baton Rouge Advocate notes that Jindal won a majority of the votes in an election with the lowest level of voter participation (46 percent) since Louisiana went to the open primary system four decades ago. There is a debate about the reason for the low turnout, but this is not just a Louisiana phenomenon. Voter turnout has been in decline nationally for decades. One reason some point to is that voters just don't feel that participating matters; that, regardless of the winner, policies will not change in a way that will affect their lives.

Registered voters are not participating because they don't feel the Money Party represents them.

Jindal and Republicans (including the supposedly non-partisan Blueprint Louisiana group) were able to capitalize on the hunger for change in Louisiana by focusing on ethics reform. Because Democrats were the party in power, that issue cut against them.

Now that circumstances have changed and Democrats face the prospect of being mostly shut out of power at the state level for the next four years, that dynamic changes as well. Defending the status quo will now fall to Republicans. The one area of reform that they don't want to go is campaign finance reform. Why? Because the current system is working well for them.

The next four years are going to be a process of Jindal and the Republicans' rhetoric being measured against the reality of their policies, programs and the impact of those.

They've laid claim to ethics reform as the core of their claim to power. Ethics reform without campaign finance reform is a scam. Democrats can help transform Louisiana politics and their own political prospects by pushing the new governor and his Republican friends to go where they don't want to go: fundamental campaign finance reform.

Ending 'pay to play' begins by taking corporate money out of political campaigns.

If Democrats are willing to standup for that, then rumors of their irrelevance might be exaggerated.

More to come — Soon!

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Louisiana Democrat2Democrat by Mike Stagg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.