Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Ethics of The Speaker-elect Questioned in Court

The more things change . . .

As we stand on the verge of the beginning of the Jindal era and it's laser-like focus on ethics (or, at least, a version of it), the ethical behavior of House Speaker-elect Jim Tucker has been called into question in a Plaquemines Parish state court.

The Governor-elect has made removing "even the hint of corruption" the standard of accountability to which he wants Louisiana's ethics laws to hold elected officials. A lawyer representing the ex-husband of Tucker's wife is charging that Tucker used his position as a legislator to craft a law so-narrowly drawn as to apply almost specifically to his wife's divorce dispute.

The Times-Picayune has the story
:
A Belle Chasse divorce lawyer asked a Plaquemines Parish state district judge Friday to compel state Rep. Jim Tucker and 11 other legislators to testify about their involvement in legislation that he accused the Algiers lawmaker of advocating to help his wife's custody battle.

An attorney for the Louisiana House of Representatives, meanwhile, argued that the state Constitution gives the 13 lawmakers a legislative privilege that protects them from having to answer questions about their actions in writing, amending and voting on bills.
So, Tucker is trying to hide behind the theory of legislative immunity in order avoid testifying on the matter. The T-P story indicates that Tucker has been less than forthcoming about the legislation all along:
Tucker, a Republican expected to be the next House speaker, spoke in favor of House Bill 501 during a May hearing of the civil law and procedure committee. He said the proposed legislation by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, would help victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita who were forced to move to another parish in the middle of a custody suit. He gave the example of a parent who would have to drive from Shreveport to New Orleans to attend court proceedings.

Married in 2006

The bill, which was signed into law June 22 by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, required district court judges to transfer custody and child support suits to the parish where the parent moved. It only pertains to a divorced person who moved to another Louisiana parish between Aug. 26, 2005, and Aug. 15 of this year, whose former spouse lived in another state before the hurricanes, and whose lawyer files a motion requesting the venue change before Dec. 31.

Tucker did not tell the committee that his wife, Marisol, fit that scenario.

The couple married in July 2006 and moved to English Turn. Marisol Tucker previously lived in Belle Chasse.
By not telling the committee that the legislation applied to his wife, Representative Tucker — at the very least — hid a conflict of interest from his peers.

Here's a definition of conflict of interest:
A conflict of interest is a situation in which someone in a position of trust, such as a lawyer, insurance adjuster, a politician, executive or director of a corporation or a medical research scientist or physician, has competing professional or personal interests. Such competing interests can make it difficult to fulfill his or her duties impartially. A conflict of interest exists even if no unethical or improper act results from it. A conflict of interest can create an appearance of impropriety that can undermine confidence in the person, profession, or court system. A conflict can be mitigated by third party verification or third party evaluation noted below—but it still exists.
Tucker's 2007 behavior, it seems, flunks the Jindal 'hint' test when it comes to ethical behavior. Tucker appears intent on compounding that lapse by having the Clerk of the House assert a claim of legislative immunity in court:
House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer, representing all the legislators named in the motion, deflected Hufft's characterization of the 2007 legislation as so narrowly defined as to pertain only to Tucker. He said it applies to anyone whose former spouse lives out of state and who moved, because of the hurricane or for any reason, between the two dates listed in the law.

Speer said the 2007 law stands on its own, and Hufft would have to make any challenge to its constitutionality without additional comment from its drafters or those lawmakers who voted for it. He said the legislative privilege is integral to the separation of powers.

"It is there to ensure that when legislators are functioning within that process they can do so without always having to look over their shoulders and wonder who's going to drag them in front of a court or in front of an administrative tribunal or a court reporter and say, 'OK, why did you vote that way? Who did you talk to? What facts did you have and did you know that?'"
There is more than a bit of irony here that Tucker (the man who will be expected to crack the whip in the House of Representatives on the Jindal ethics agenda) enlisted the assistance of Rep. Arnold on this issue when Arnold was a key player in an earlier ethical contretemps that the leader of Jindal's transition team, Baton Rouge Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister, railed against in the run up to the election.

In a March 2007 column entitled "Slaughter the pigs at the trough," that appeared in the Better Government Association's website McCollister attacked Arnold, Speer and the concept of legislative privilege exempting lawmakers from the state Code of Ethics for Elected Officials. That case involved Arnold and another legislator casting votes on bills that directly affected family members who served as assessors in Orleans Parish.

Here's what McCollister wrote about that case then:
They just don't get it

"What signal does that send to children? What signal does that send to the rest of the people of the state? What signal does that send to the rest of the people in this country who are helping rebuild Louisiana? That the ethics rules that this Legislature passed apply to everybody other than themselves."

These were the recent comments of Hank Perret, chairman of the Louisiana Board of Ethics, as the board considered a lawsuit filed by two members of the state House of Representatives which seeks to assert their immunity from investigation and prosecution by anybody except the House itself when alleged conflicts of interest take place during a legislative process. The Times-Picayune reported that "the Ethics Board at its meeting last week said the petition, if successful, could set a precedent that would damage the state's ethics standards. The board voted unanimously to fight the petition." Good for them.

The lawsuit is by State Reps. Jeff Arnold and Alex Heaton, who opposed bills introduced to consolidate the seven assessors offices in Orleans Parish into one. Arnold's father and Heaton's brother are Orleans assessors.

House Speaker Joe Salter is supporting the lawsuit, saying the legal principles are too important to ignore. He told the Times-Picayune, "This petition is strictly about the constitutional mandate that prohibits any entity outside the Legislature from investigating and censuring members for performing these duties as legislators."

That might be fine, Joe, if 1) you had not passed laws establishing the Ethics Commission to oversee such behavior; and 2) the people had any faith the legislators would investigate or actually censure such action. This is like the fox guarding the hen house.

Fact is, if we look at history, House Clerk Butch Speer told the Times-Pic that in his 30 years he can only remember TWO times when the house had used its power to remove a member--and that was after they had been convicted of criminal corruption and bribery. BIG whoop! That was a tough decision I am sure--and it makes my point. The legislators don't and won't hold their own accountable. I am sure many are thinking, "Next time, it could be me."

I think Ethics Board member Delgado Smith said it best: "They (legislators) are the ones who should be setting the example.
So, Speaker-elect Tucker — one of the leaders-to-be of the coming Jindal ethics initiative — has descended to using the same arguments of the Good Ole Boys in order to prevent his conflict of interest from being discussed in court.

To quote the great Peter Townshend: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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