Republican Ethics Hypocrisy

There's a Gaping Hole in Governor Jindal's Ethics Agenda

Campaign Finance Reform Ignored in Jindal Ethics Session Call

Less than a month into his term and Governor Piyush Bobby Jindal has revealed his focus on ethics is more style than substance.

After vowing to end "pay to play" in Louisiana politics, Jindal's call for the upcoming special session on ethics leaves the most obvious form of pay to play — direct corporate contributions to campaigns — untouched. That fact and others reveal that Jindal's concern about ethics ends at the Republican Party line. Not only are corporate contributions untouched, but Jindal included no call for stiffer penalties for campaign finance violations nor did he include any item that would restrict the bundling of contributions from wealthy individuals through multiple limited liability corporations they control.

Jindal's campaign as well as those of other Republicans benefited directly from such practices and the fact that he does not plan to address them leads to the conclusion that Jindal's concept of ethics reform is a partisan scam.

Paying to Play

For all of Jindal's talk about wanting to end what is perceived as Louisiana's "pay to play" political culture, it's not surprising that the new governor refused to try to eliminate the most direct form of pay to play — direct contributions to campaigns by companies doing or seeking to do business with the political entity for which a candidate is campaigning.

It's not surprising because Jindal's campaign had no qualms about accepting those kinds of contributions, including those that raised serious ethical questions such as the Colorado waste company that is seeking a permit to do business in Louisiana and contributed significant money to Jindal's campaign.

Corporate campaign contributions are barred at the federal level and in many states (including Texas). So, if Jindal was committed to eliminating what he termed as "even the hint of corruption," then prohibiting those wanting to play from paying candidates would seem like the essential starting point.

Jindal's sesssion call is silent on this point leaving one to conclude that his ethics talk on the campaign trail reflected a campaign strategy rather than a commitment to genuine reform.

For instance, a number of nursing homes funded Speaker Jim Tucker's "T PAC" political action committee. The state has a number of policies in place that directly affect the nursing home business. Were there discussions between the nursing home operators and Tucker about those policies at any time before or since those contributions were made?

Whether there were any policy discussions or not, the fact remains that the contributions from the nursing home operators creates the impression that they were paying Tucker to play. In the terms the standard that Jindal frequently raised in his election campaign, it presents a 'hint of corruption.' Yet, Jindal is making no effort to address issues like this in his so-called ethics reform session.

There's also no mention in the call of the practice of individuals who control one or more limited liability corporations to use each of those companies to contribute the legal maximum ($5,000 in statewide races) to campaigns. This practice has the effect of circumventing the state's campaign finance laws regarding maximum contributions. It allows individuals who personally control multiple companies to distort the political process by making an end run around the campaign finance limits that apply to individuals who might have significant income, but don't have the ability to play a shell game with LLCs and campaign finance laws because they don't own a number of companies.

Jindal's campaign benefited handsomely from this practice last year. It's no surprise that he's in no hurry to change a system from which he derived significant benefit, but it undercuts the sincerity of his claim to be a champion of ethics reform because this practice allows relatively small numbers of individuals to bring enormous resources — and clout — to political campaigns.

Preserving Wrist Slaps

The Jindal ethics call also is silent on the matter of providing meaningful penalties for violations of campaign finance laws.

As was illustrated by Jindal's own recent campaign finance foul-up, the omission of hundreds of thousands of dollars from campaign finance reports can result in relatively meaningless fines of $2,500 to campaigns. OK, meaningless to well-funded campaigns. I can attest to the pain of grassroots campaigns having to come up with the money to pay fines for campaign finance law violations.

But, some campaigns have made a cost-benefit analysis of the state's campaign finance laws and come to the conclusiong that the political advantage they gain by not revealing contributions in a timely way far outweigh the burden of the fines.

Then, there are outrageous cases of violations like those committed by Republican incumbent Representative Don Trahan of Lafayette in the 2007 campaign. Trahan, who was engaged in a tough head-to-head campaign against independent candidate Nancy Landry, squeaked to a 33-vote victory in the October primary. Lafayette's The Independent subsequently discovered and reported that Trahan had received contributions from political action committees that pushed him over the legal limit of PAC contributions candidates can receive.

The $23,000 in excess PAC money Trahan received came in the final weeks of that campaign and was decisive in his narrow win. Sure, he'll pay a fine, but he gets to keep the seat that he won thanks to the illegal contributions.

In this case, unethical behavior pays and — again — the Jindal agenda will do nothing to change that.

Meet the Scofflaws

The Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM) raised more than $2 million dollars in a little more than a year in its self-proclaimed effort to win Republican control of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

While it did not achieve its objective in terms of raw numbers, it did manage to get things close enough there that Republican Jim Tucker managed to get himself elected speaker.

The LCRM ran a sophisticated (if inefficient campaign), but it excelled at pretending to comply with state campaign finance laws while it was busy avoiding doing so.

The LCRM hid some of the key people on its payroll by paying a Gonzales-based company — Campaign Opinion Research — to manage its operation. With that move, a significant barrier to the transparency of the organization was erected. This move certainly ran against the spirit, if not the letter, of Louisiana's campaign finance laws, which were created with the idea of opening the political process to more public scrutiny.

The LCMR spent loads of money on consultants, including a professional CPA firm to track its finances. Funny thing, though, the LCRM's records — particularly late in the campaign — were sloppy to the point that the notion that they were intentionally incomplete must be raises.

Look no further than the campaign finance report due on September 20th that covered the period between June 5 and September 10. The LCRM submitted four different versions of that report — the first on September 20; the second on October 2; the third on October 3; the most recent of the report was filed on December 13.

That this series of reports was no accident is revealed by what came to be revealed in each successive report. The first two iterations of the report only listed one beneficiary of the LCRM's in-kind contributions. In the October 3 version, the LCRM revealed the names of the actual campaigns it had been helping since the summer with various in-kind contributions. So, instead of a month before the election, opponents of LCRM-backed candidates only found out two weeks before the October 17 primary that they were engaged in a race against people with very deep pockets.

But, it was not until the December 12th version of that September 20th report that the LCRM revealed the candidates it had been working to defeat since the summer. That information is contained on the front summary page of campaign filling forms. At no point prior to that December filing of that report due in September did the LCRM comply with campaign finance law and reveal to the public the complete list of campaigns and candidates it had targeted for defeat. A November filing failed to include the name of Rep. Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte, founder of the Legislative Democratic Caucus, who was a candidate for a seat in the Louisiana Senate. The LCRM actually backed another Democrat in that race in their unsuccessful attempt to defeat Lafleur.

Nothing in the Jindal ethics package would be enough to compel deep-pocketed scofflaws like the LCRM to play by the rules.

In addition, LCRM pushed the limits on the definition of independent expenditures when it gave money, polling data, software and direct contributions to some legislative campaigns and also spent money in a way not coordinated with those same campaigns to attack the opponents of the people they supported.

But, Governor Jindal is OK with all of this because, apparently, it works to the benefit of himself and his party. It's little wonder that Jindal's ethics transition advisory board didn't broach these campaign finance issues, since some of the members of that board were tied to his campaign and the LCRM.

Why It Matters

Our political processes at the local, state and national levels are dominated by money. 'One person, one vote' has been replaced by 'one dollar, one vote.' I believe this explains a great deal about why government does not work in the interests of the vast majority of people. I also believe that because of this reign of money, people have lost faith in the political process itself. They don't believe that their vote and their voice matter. The statewide elections last year had the lowest turnout in any statewide election we've had here in modern memory.

Yes, ethics reform is important to Louisiana. But, as many have noted, the administrations of Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco were free of major corruption scandals. In fact, Louisiana has never had a monopoly on corruption. If you look around, you'll find that it crops up just about everywhere in one form or another.

There is no doubt that candidate Jindal rode that ethics horse into the Governor's Mansion. But, for him to keep spouting the rhetoric while leaving campaign finance reform virtually untouched undermines his credibility and feeds the cynicism that has driven so many people out of the voting process.

True ethics reform is not partisan but by leaving the corporate money flood gates open, by not calling for severe penalties for blatant campaign finance law violations, and by not seeking to put enough teeth in campaign reporting requirements so as to make compliance the wise choice, Governor Jindal reveals a genuine disdain for the intelligence of the people of this state. And that is a short-sighted game that will produce no winners at a time when we desperately need some.

Democrats who will not take up the cause of campaign finance reform are as guilty of cynicism as is Jindal. Good Democrats cannot also be members of the Money Party. You cannot serve two masters.

More to come — Soon!

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