Lee Zurik Investigation: Gold standard for ethics, lead standard for enforcement

State Treasurer John Kennedy deals with money every day. And after watching our investigative series "Louisiana Purchased," he decided to come up with a way to find more money for the state's Board of Ethics.

"I've been in and out of government for 20 years," Kennedy says, "and I don't think the Ethics [Administration] has ever been properly funded. They've never had enough people."

The Louisiana Board of Ethics has a budget of about $4 million a year. That's about the same amount of money New Orleans gives its inspector general.

"There is an inherent tension between the policy makers - the political policy makers, decision makers - and the ethics commission," says Kennedy. "And by that I mean the regulators, the ethics commission, have to depend on the people being regulated, the politicians, to give them money to do the regulation. It's kind of like asking a bunch of 17-year-olds to chip in and pay the alcoholic beverage control guys or, you know, the football team after the game is over to chip in and pay the referees."

Kennedy says the board's lack of resources became evident with just a few clicks of his mouse. The Ethics Board has a search mechanism on its website that allows you to look at campaign contributions.  FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune built our own version at NOLA.com.

"The search mechanism that FOX 8 and the Picayune have put up is about 10 times faster than the ethics commission website," Kennedy tells us.

In our series, we showed how the Ethics Board doesn't enforce many of its own laws. That's partly because of a lack of resources.

We showed a handful of elected officials breaking state campaign finance laws. In at least two decades, though, the Ethics Board has never investigated one public official for breaking this type of law.

Kennedy says, "One of the things I took away from your series is, you can argue about whether Louisiana has a gold standard of ethics laws. But no reasonable person could argue that our standard of enforcement is anything more than, I don't know, lead or tin."

The Ethics Board won't confirm if they'll open any investigations into the nine elected officials who may have received more campaign contributions from political action committee's than the law allows.

One of those elected officials, La. Senator Danny Martiny, tells us by email, "The Ethics Board has been contacted about how to return any excess PAC donations once we determine the correct figures. But you may rest assured that any mistake will be rectified."

Another we dug into, state Sen. Eric LaFleur, says he's planning to return the money - "Just over $30k," he tells us. State Sen. JP Morrell and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain have already told us they would give the excess money back.

State Sen. Elbert Guillory wrote us a letter, saying a report filed for 2008 should be counted toward the 2011 campaign, and not the 2009 election. What Guillory wrote, though, contradicts what the Ethics Administration told us - they said that report is for the 2009 election, which would mean Guillory violated the law.

We still haven't heard any response from Francis Heitmeier and Yvonne Dorsey. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley opened our email, but has not responded. We also haven't received any response from Senate President John Alario - records show he broke this law for three straight elections.

"You shouldn't have laws if you're not going to enforce them," says Kennedy.

And that brings us back to the state treasurer. His way of finding the Ethics Board more money is to help them collect on fines.

In our series online and in the newspaper, we show the amount of fines currently due the board is about $1.2 million. Current and prospective elected officials owe the state money, and they won't pay.

River Ridge attorney Albert Donovan tops the list. The former lead in-house lawyer for Governor Edwin Edwards owes $42,000 from his failed 2003 secretary of state race.

Former Orleans School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz owes the second highest amount, $37,440.

Kennedy has asked a new state office, the Office of Debt Recovery, to go after the uncollected fines. The head of the office, Tim Barfield, says he will.

"He has an agreement, ultimately he'll have an agreement with 300 banks," Kennedy informs us. "And he can put in your name, if you owe money, into his database, identify where that individual or that company has bank accounts, and automatically seize them."

Kennedy says the office will not only seize money, but also go after hunting, driver's or professional licenses.

He says the Ethics Board could be given $1 million by forcing politicians, elected officials, who owe the state money to pay up.

“There’s a double standard here,” says the state treasurer. “If you’re the average person in Louisiana and you owe a traffic ticket because the State Police caught you speeding, or you owe taxes, believe me – they’re going to fine you and beat you over the head and get your money. But here’s a case where we’ve got… I don’t know, a million-plus dollars, owed by public officials, and they don’t have to pay. And that’s just not right. It’s why people hate government.”