In this series, I will compare Bobby Jindal’s pledges as a candidate in 2007 with his record in the Governor’s office. I begin with the centerpiece of Jindal’s 2007 campaign, ethics reform.
In 2007, when he kicked off his second and, ultimately, first successful campaign for governor, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal talked frequently about the urgent and pressing need to completely transform state ethics laws. Some legislators were actually lobbyists, he suggested, a clear conflict of interest. Some used campaign contributions to pay salaries for their spouses and children. The Ruth’s Chris dinners may have always seemed like a traditional perk of the job, but it also perfectly symbolized the problem.
Per capita, more public officials from Louisiana have been convicted of a crime than from anywhere else in the country, except, of course, Mississippi. It wasn’t too difficult to work up a crowd by excoriating lawmakers for spending more time eating fancy steak dinners, usually paid for by lobbyists, than on working for the people they were elected to represent. They were all a bunch of fat cats. They became rich off of the public dime. Or so the story was told. Bobby Jindal published detailed, multi-pronged reports on how, exactly, he would usher in a “gold standard” for ethics; it became the centerpiece of his campaign.
In August 2007, Jindal released a bizarre, slapstick television commercial titled “They Can’t Stop Corruption,” lampooning his two Democratic opponents, Foster Campbell and Walter Boasso, as some sort of deranged clowns whose primary talent involves eating gobs of money from the steps of the capitol.
It took me nearly an hour to finally locate this video. Believe it or not, there are now countless other stories, pictures, and videos that pop up when you search the web for “Bobby Jindal clown,” “Bobby Jindal clown car,” and “Bobby Jindal clown commercial.” The governor has also completely scrubbed the commercial from both his website and his YouTube account, which, incidentally, still includes other videos from 2007. I finally found this ad after scouring archive.org for 8-year-old caches of bobbyjindal.com. Suffice it to say, it has been scrubbed for a reason.
In fairness, both Foster Campbell and Walter Boasso are, in fact, millionaires. But even back then, before he published his first book, so was Bobby Jindal. The commercial was not a populist attack against the wealthy, though; it was a commentary about the profligate, out-of-control spending of limousine liberal legislators and the legacy of Edwin Edwards, and it fit perfectly with Jindal’s message about ethics reform. It was also a dog whistle, an inverted facsimile of a minstril show: painted faces in suits, goofy and dumb smiles, stilted movements, comedic music that recalls the 1920s.
Seven and a half years later, as Jindal ramps up his bid for the Presidency, we should ask: How, exactly, did Bobby Jindal reform ethics laws?
Here are the “five pillars” of his plan:
The very first pillar of Bobby Jindal’s plan, numero uno, is that you cannot be both a lobbyist and a legislator at the same time. That seems obvious and uncontroversial, but Jindal takes it a step further. “This will extend to other business relationships that may be seen as gray areas,” Jindal writes. For example, if you’re a paid consultant for an industry that is being sued by a state agency or another political subdivision, you can’t use your power as a legislator to introduce changes in the law that would retroactively immunize the industry from litigation.
That is, unless you’re Republican State Senator Robert Adley. Quoting from Tyler Bridges’s report in The Lens titled “Oil and gas interests have no better friend in Baton Rouge than combative Sen. Adley” (bold mine):
In criticizing the lawsuit, Jindal also argued that the flood authority didn’t have the right to file it. But rather than let a court resolve the dispute, the governor, Adley said, had aides ask him to use his political muscle to snuff out the litigation in Baton Rouge, where the oil and gas business has a reputation for getting its way.
Here’s the problem (bold mine):
… as his critics note, Adley is steeped in the oil and gas business.
He owned Pelican Gas Management from 1992 until he sold the business in 2012. The company managed natural gas supplies for small towns around the state through contracts with the Louisiana Municipal Gas Authority. In 2003, an Associated Press article questioned whether the gas authority awarded him the no-bid contracts thanks to his political office and influence — a suggestion he denied.
The business was lucrative. In 2002, the AP reported, he earned $259,000 from Pelican. Adley’s latest financial disclosure report shows that in 2012 he and his wife each earned at least $100,000, the highest reportable figure.
He now consults for gas companies, Adley said.
“For nine months of the year, he is the chief executive officer of a gas company,” said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the retired U.S. Army commander who led troops into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “For three months [during the legislative session], he represents the industry he is in,” said Honore; his Green Army, a nonprofit environmental group, is fighting Adley’s legislative effort.
“Pillar Two,” Jindal writes. “Legislators will have to give full financial disclosure.”
This also sounds obvious and uncontroversial, but it’s based on a fundamentally flawed assumption and a misguided expectation: Ostensibly, Jindal’s ethics reform agenda was about rooting out criminality and corruption. The problem is: No one ever purposefully discloses a bribe. Sure, it’s now nice to know how much, exactly, elected officials have spent on gas, groceries, and food, and now, we can finally rank restaurants by how much each has received from campaign and PAC funds.
Don’t get me wrong though: Transparency is important, and the Internet now allows anyone the ability to comb through trillions of pages of public records. At its best, disclosure laws demand accountability and ensure that elected officials realize that they are being constantly scrutinized by the media.
That’s not what has happened in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, however. The second pillar, it turns out, is only credible if the first pillar is actually enforced. Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric, and no one takes you seriously.
I’m a big fan of Pillar Three. I think it’s my favorite part of the 2007 Jindal campaign platform. “You cannot serve in the government and do business with the government at the same time,” Jindal writes. For example, if you own a law firm that represents the government in pending litigation, you cannot also collect a paycheck as the governor’s executive counsel. That’s double-dipping. It would appear as if you may have used your access in the Governor’s Office to steer lucrative legal work to your private practice. Thankfully, Jindal’s attorney realized this a few weeks before the inauguration ceremonies.
Faircloth resigned a year and a half later, ran for the Louisiana State Supreme Court (with the Governor’s full support), lost, and then returned to private practice.
You’ll never believe what he’s doing now. Quoting from Melinda Deslatte (bold mine):
A law firm run by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former executive counsel has received more than $1.1 million in no-bid contract work from Jindal appointees and state agencies since leaving the governor’s office and is becoming a fixture in high-profile legal battles for the Republican administration.
Faircloth returned to private practice with his new law firm, and within three months of the election loss, he was hired in January 2010 to represent the Louisiana Tax Commission, led by Jindal appointees. He canceled the legal services contract a few months later, after questions were raised about whether he had waited enough time under state law to do the work.
The governor’s executive counsel is among those public employees prohibited from entering into state contracts for a year after leaving the job under Louisiana’s ethics laws. Faircloth was later fined $1,000 by the Board of Ethics for violating the law, but the fine was suspended as long as he remained in compliance with ethics laws.
That’s right: Bobby Jindal’s own lawyer was fined for violating ethics laws.
Bobby Jindal may claim that he was able to check off these things from his list, but unfortunately, his version of ethics reform has proven to be completely ineffectual and almost entirely unenforceable. Lobbyists still freely roam the halls and the back corridors of the capitol. Legislators still make fortunes “working” for the very companies they were elected to regulate. Millions of dollars in state legal work somehow found its way to a tiny law office in Alexandria a couple of years after its founder and owner resigned as the Governor’s attorney.
For many, that may seem like business as usual in a state like Louisiana. Ethics reform, though, should not just be about tracing interconnected webs of money between industry lobbyists and lawmakers. Much more importantly, ethics reform should be focused on transparency in decision-making. Both the media and the public have a fundamental right to access, analyze, and, yes, criticize, agency and administrative reports on education, tax, and health care policy and spending. On issues that do not affect state, national, or even local security and law enforcement, citizens should be able to properly scrutinize and vet the mega-million dollar reports for which they pay. It is critical to an informed and functioning democracy, and it is absolutely necessary that a vibrant press has the resources required to accurately report the news.
While Bobby Jindal set about enacting a series of new requirements on the legislature, he also successfully snuck in language that would make his office the least transparent in contemporary history, rebranding and massively expanding the old “governor’s exemption” into the much more nebulous and far-reaching “deliberative process exemption,” which frequently prevents any and all records that the governor ever looked at from being disclosed (particularly when the documents requested concern policies the governor is “deliberating,” which can take weeks, months, even years, depending on the issue). It’s an arbitrary and capricious law, and it provides enormous personal power to the governor over the media and his colleagues in the legislature.
A few years ago, my friend Zack Kopplin and I had to sue the Louisiana Department of Education to provide records pertaining to the school voucher program; the case is still ongoing. The Advocate had to sue the state merely to learn the names of those who were considered as LSU’s next president. Last week, the state refused to provide documents outlining potential cuts to health care. And all of these denials have one thing in common: They all invoked the newly-created “deliberative process” exemption, a legal neologism borrowed from the federal rules of discovery, in order to create a new, artificial, and expansive subspecies of “confidential” records. Anything that the Governor has or could look at falls under the exception.
This, I’d argue, is the polar opposite of an ethical, open, and transparent government. It resembles totalitarianism, a disdain for the media. It undermines democracy.
A few years ago, in a statement for an LSU Law review article, a local legislator put it perfectly (bold mine). “The bill,” he said, “would result in Louisiana being more closed than a Communist state like Cuba. The bill (he said), would ‘take the state of Louisiana from sunshine to moonshine.’”
The legislator’s name: Robert Adley.