Ethics Reform: A Popular Idea Which Everyone Hates

New Governor Bobby Jindal may be the youngest governor in the land, but at 36, he has lots of experience in state government and had a clear understanding of what he wanted to do in his first day on the job. Tuesday–like the cross-eyed javelin thrower–when he stood up, he had everyone’s undivided attention, and he made the most of it.

Jindal had appointed a committee of 17 to advise him on ethics reform in Louisiana. They took him seriously, and he is taking their recommendations for all they’re worth. Here are some of the contents of Jindal’s program as announced yesterday.

1) State legislators will be prohibited from receiving free tickets to concerts and sporting events. They will be allowed to purchase them at face value, though.

2) Everyone from the governor’s office to the legislature, from judges to local officials, should be required to file annual financial disclosures. The governor is requiring that his cabinet members comply with the same financial disclosure which candidates for governor must meet.

Officials in towns or parishes of more than 5,000 residents will be covered in this requirement.

3) Any political appointee indicted for a crime is automatically expected to resign.

4) Anyone late in paying a fine to the Ethics Board will have their case referred to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution. Presently, politicians owe the state of Louisiana over $800,000 in back fines.

5) Legislators may not enter into contracts with the state, even if those contracts are competitively bid.

6) Lobbyists, already bound by a number of laws limiting what they can and cannot do, will be required to list all income sources, the subject matters they are lobbying for, and any business relationships they have with state officials and lawmakers.

7) The budget of the Ethics Board will be increased so more staff can be hired.

8) Campaign finance laws will be revamped to provide more details in contributions and expenses. Candidates will be prohibited from using campaign funds to pay ethics violation fines or to hire their relatives.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. A new day in Louisiana, indeed. Honest government; it has such a nice ring to it.

You’ve begun well, Governor. Stay the course.

New Orleans’ new Inspector General Robert Cerasoli has received approval for all the staff positions he will be filling. He’s finally ready to start interviewing candidates to work for him.

“Mr. C” says his office will be working with the Civil Service Board and the mayor’s office to rewrite job descriptions and conditions of service for the hundreds of local government employees. He’d rather prevent corruption than uncover it and have to prosecute it.

Prediction: he’ll have a lot of success, but some people just never learn. Inevitably, there will be cops arrested for demanding money for protection and politicians jailed for accepting bribes. It’s not so much that people are dumb so much as self-centered and self-deluded.

Want to see what self-delusion looks like? Tune in to “American Idol.”

Watch it now, in its early stages, before they start cutting the field down to a dozen or so talented people. Right now, when the gates are thrown wide open and any eccentric in the country can audition before Randy, Paula, and Simon, this is the funniest show on television.

I cringe at the putdowns and laughter which the panel of three sling toward some of the most bizarre or untalented performers. But sitting in my living room, I’m doing the same thing. “How did it happen that this guy thought he could sing?”

And then the failed candidate walks into the lobby criticizing the judges and throwing obscene gestures toward their door.

Some people don’t have a clue about the real world. They’re fun to watch for a few minutes, but you wouldn’t want them as neighbors. Or family members. Or state legislators.

Back to ethics reform.

Years ago, while pastoring a church in another state, I was serving on our denomination’s “governing” board. Now, being Baptists and despising centralized government, we don’t have “governing boards.” But for all intents and purposes, that’s what it is. Anyway, something out of the ordinary caught my attention.

One family seemed to be controlling the main agencies of our denomination in that state. The brothers would sit as chairmen of various boards of trustees, and those agencies seemed to be hiring the companies run by that extended family for a lot of their work.

So, I made a visit to the executive director of the state Baptist convention. We were long-time friends and had been neighboring pastors, so we were on a first-name basis.

I pointed out what was happening and said, “This is not right. We would not condone this in the state government, and yet here we are watching it happen in the Lord’s work.”

My friend the executive, did not, as they say, come in on a load of turnips yesterday. He knew full well what was going on under his very eyes.

I said, “I want to propose an amendment to the constitution of our state convention that would prohibit trustees from doing business with the institution they govern.”

The executive was quiet for a moment, then he said in his best father-knows-best voice, “Joe. You are about to stir up a hornet’s nest.”

I assured him I was well aware of it, but that right was right and this was long overdue.

He counseled me to back off and give it some thought. He suggested I talk to a few more friends in the ministry and get their counsel. I did.

A pastor whom I trusted above all others said, “On the surface, it appears to be a good idea. But you may end up tying the hands of the institution you’re trying to help.”

He cited an example he was familiar with. The local Baptist college had on its trustees a car dealer who made automobiles available to school administrators at extremely low costs. “Prohibit him from doing business with the college and you have just added to the financial burden of the college.” I had not thought of that.

Eventually, I backed off, not for reasons of prudence and sound judgement. I was a coward.

Members of that controlling family were some of my friends. I had served on a board of trustees under the chairmanship of one of the brothers and knew him to be likeable and highly respected. He was smart and sharp, and one man I did not want to get crossways with. So, I did nothing.

To my knowledge, even though the key players in my little drama have all either retired or died, there’s still nothing in that state convention’s constitution to bar this from happening again. And I suspect it’s that way in every state convention in the land.

The time for ethics reform is when everyone is doing right.

Now is the time to change constitutions to protect the integrity of the process while there is no issue on the table, no one to get offended, no one’s feelings to protect.

Looking back, I’m still not sure I should have proceeded with my plan for reforming the work of the trustee boards, but I can think of one thing I should have done. I should have gone to the chairman of the trustees with whom I had served, the brother whom I knew best, and brought the subject up with him. He looked upon me as a kid preacher at the time, I’m confident of that, yet it’s just possible he might have had some thoughts along this same line himself in order to protect the institutions he and his family cared deeply about, as well as the Lord’s work in the future.

Ethics reform: it’s a great idea; it’s a concession to Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and given half a chance, will do so again” (my rather free paraphrase); it’s no fun, a terrible inconvenience for everyone, and a necessary thing.

Only a fool or a person of great courage will be such a reformer.

One thought on “Ethics Reform: A Popular Idea Which Everyone Hates

  1. I posted this article Wednesday morning, based on today’s Times-Picayune. Later in the day, state Senator Julie Quinn was on the radio saying some of the legislators were slightly miffed at some of these issues our new governor has raised. For example, she pointed out that they don’t get free tickets. She’s just been sworn in for her second term and she said, “No one has ever given me a ticket to anything.” She has been able to purchase tickets at face value, but she said, she handed them out to constituents.

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