State ethics code should be taken seriously

There is no authoritative determination as of yet that Terrebonne Parish officials violated the Louisiana Code of Ethics by accepting free attendance to a $100 per-seat roast of Parish President Gordon Dove. And perhaps there never will be.

The Board of Ethics is largely complaint driven and has very full dockets. At times, it appears that its members and administrators are the only people in Louisiana who really care about the code, other than those who may want to see their political rivals sweat out an investigation just for meanness.

In this issue of The Times is a story about the possibility that an ethics breach occurred. To some, the topic might appear petty. The HTV-10 Celebrity Roast benefits two respected charities. Through words they spoke in interviews, some council members gave clues that they probably would have rather been anywhere else. One council member, during a not-for-attribution conversation, told a reporter that he felt “pressured” to attend, though that view was not shared by all.

If there was a sense of pressure the logical question would be where it might have come from. Could it have been from the Parish President’s office, because one of the charities involved is near and dear to him? Or could it have come from HTV owner Martin Folse, who recently had a proposed contract up for consideration by the council, but negated its need by finding dollars other than those belonging to taxpayers to subsidize a newly-conceived television show?

When a citizen of this parish goes through a red light, even if it is turning as they are in the intersection, judges don’t regularly give breaks. And the people who make our ordinances and decide how money should be spent shouldn’t get breaks if they didn’t have the curiosity that might have resulted in a formal Board of Ethics opinion on whether the admission should have been accepted. Likely there wasn’t time.

That an ethics problem with free admission to a $100 per plate event might exist can be determined by looking no further than the local state legislative delegation.

All except those containing specific permissions under law paid for their tickets or seats, specifically because they did not wish to create a scandal.

So the newspaper highlighted the potential of violations as a way of telling the public that the ethics laws exist, and telling politicians that the responsibility to follow them ultimately rests with them. It is their responsibility – just like their fellows who travel regularly to Baton Rouge – to know what the law requires.

It is possible that the members were advised through some means that attendance at the dinner would not be a problem. That’s one reason why The Times is seeking e-mails on the government e-mail account that relate to it. So far, the parish is refusing to produce them, claiming that they are not public records. They are, parish officials said, “purely private and personal.”

But those e-mails could provide needed information on how attendance by parish council members was solicited and distributed. Perhaps not. Maybe the e-mails in question have questions from one parish official to the other about what shade of lipstick should be worn.

In either event, the refusal to produce the e-mails – a position the parish is not required to take even if allowed to do so – erodes public confidence. It gives fuel to those motivated by politics to ask in whispered tones what the parish government is hiding.

The whole package, meaning the free admissions, the refusal of parish government to produce e-mails that could actually provide information indicating parish officials acted in good faith, does not bode well for public confidence.

Rather it places committed and dedicated public officials in the unfortunate position of having to defend what they thought were innocent actions. Another problem is that some in parish government are asking more questions about whether the inquiries by the newspaper on this matter is politically motivated than they are about the potential of code violation. Louisiana, prompted by the shameful history of Huey Long and other abusive government officials, put ethics laws in place, and the ability to examine public records in the state constitution, so that such a non-transparent era might never occur again.

No, the questions about potential ethics law violations are not trifling. Nor should they be. •