Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Definition of Oxymoron - LA Ethics Board

It should come as no surprise to many of you that I've long had issues with the Louisiana State Ethics Board and their practice of imposing fees for late filing of forms rather than smacking elected officials who game the system and use campaign funds to finance their personal lifestyles (which should be the mandate of the ethics board).

Admittedly, because I like to think that I am a fairly logical person, I have many issues with the Ethics Board, from their campaign finance software that candidates are required to use which contains more bugs than New Orleans during cockroach season and which cones with no instructions or support (need help? hire an accountant to prepare the forms for you) to arcane rules that truly make no sense (if you raise less than $5,000 in campaign contributions you can file on paper however if you loan your campaign your own money you MUST file electronically) to the fact that the Ethics Board has one true mission - raise money to pay salaries by imposing late fees instead of truly monitoring campaign contributions and expenses.

In essence, the Ethics Board is designed to make it as difficult and cumbersome as possible for a true "citizen" candidate to run for office.

But really, what do you expect from a State Board, formed by elected officials, stacked with current and former elected officials and their appointees, governed by legislators, and funded solely by fees that they can collect.

Of course, if a candidate is fined they can appeal. But, the appeals process is stacked against everyday folks too. For one, you must trek to Baton Rouge for a weekday hearing. Since many citizen candidates must work, this is difficult. At the hearing, you are given a few scant minutes to plead your case. Sometimes your late fee is reduced, rarely it is eliminated, and often the Appeals Board says, "Screw you - pay up."

Now, when a candidate is dinged with a late fee, should he ever run for office again, you can bet his opponent will harp on that at every opportunity, particularly if their campaign is managed by Greg Buisson.

Despite the clear fact that a LATE FEE is NOT an "Ethics Violation", that doesn't stop folks from exaggerating the truth on an unsuspecting public.

My run ins with the Ethics Board have all been regarding the late filing of forms.

 I have never committed a "true" ethics violation;

- never spent campaign money on fancy automobiles or Saints/LSU boxes like State Senator John Alario;

- never spent campaign money on bottles of water, gasoline or slushies for my kids like JP Councilman Ben Zahn;

- never accepted free advertising from an NGO that I approved funding for (Ben Zahn, again);

- never spent campaign money on holiday gifts in February (a Valentine's Day Present for his wife or a certain "special" someone in the French Quarter?) or tens of thousands on Mardi Gras Beads and Krewe dues or spent $1,500 on a lavish meal at New Orleans restaurants like the Name-Changer-In-Chief. Kenner Mayor and candidate for Parish President Mike Yenni;

- never accepted tens of thousands in PAC money over the annual limit like State Senator Danny Martiny;

- never accepted $20k in one day from a video poker operator using multiple front companies and then deny that I ever met him like JP Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng. (FYI, everyone who EVER donated to my campaigns, whether it was $10 or a max donation, received a phone call, a note or some personal contact from me expressing my gratitude for their support).

Shouldn't each of those be 'Ethics' violations and result in an investigation and, at least, fines from the Ethics Board?

In fact, none of the above has ever resulted in any investigations, fines or sanctions by the Ethics Board.

No, the Ethics Board is too busy chasing late fees.

About a week or so ago I received yet another letter from the Ethics Board giving me 30 days to pay a $2,000 Late Fee. I'm sure that if I don't, you will read about it in the Times-Picayune so, I'll save you trouble of forking over your hard-earned dollars to read about little old me.

After my failed Mayoral campaign in 2014, my final campaign report showed that I wrote off the money that I loaned my campaign and I had a balance in my account of $12.67.. Don't know how that happened. I could have lied and put in a fake expense of $12.67 for postage, gas, or Slushies for my kids (if I had some), but I just wanted the process over, so I submitted the form.

Writing off old debt is a common practice. I surely wasn't going to hold fundraisers to pay myself back or seek donations. No, it was my money, I risked it and I lost. So what?

The next day, I went to Capital One Bank after checking the sofa cushions and laundry for loose change to come up with $2.33 to deposit so I could cover the $15 service charge and close my account.

According to the Ethics Board, I was required to file a form this year showing that I loaned myself the $2.33.


Pretty funny right? It has cost them more money in certified letters than the $2.33 I scrounged up to close my account and they are fining me $2,000.

This week, the Ethics Board took action against another "Citizen" candidate, banning Scarlett Alaniz from running against the aforementioned Slushie King, Ben Zahn. It seems that Scarlett owed $700 or so in late fees from a previous campaign. When you "qualify" for office you are asked to attest to several questions: do you owe the Ethics Boards any fines? have you paid your taxes? etc.

In my mind, the whole process of "Qualifying" as a candidate in Louisiana is bogus anyway. Who decreed that you needed to pay a fee to run for office? Why do I need to attest to the payment of taxes on a piece of paper? Shouldn't the voters decide whether paying taxes 'qualifies' me, rather than a piece of paper and a political board?

Of course, the Ethics Board has taken no action against JP Councilman Chris Roberts and probably won't despite Roberts failure to file taxes for several years and only filing them on the day he qualified.

Has the Ethics Board asked to see the date/time stamp on Roberts' receipt and matched that to the time he filed his candidacy papers to see if it was legal or not?

Just one citizen wondering. To be honest, I really could care less whether Roberts filed his taxes or some politically-connected judge ruled that, since he was owed a refund anyway, Roberts gets a pass.

That's for the voters to decide and if they deem Roberts "qualified", who am I to judge?

But, I do think that it's patently unfair that Scarlett, who is my longtime friend and has done great work for years in the Kenner community, got kicked off the ballot for paying late fees too late.

No candidate should ever be excluded from the political process over late fees paid to an Ethics Board that has no clue what the word "Ethics" means.

When the US was formed, there was a poll tax. Only property or livestock owners who paid an annual tax could vote. This was designed to exclude non-property owners, people of color and poor whites from the voting process.

Despite the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which gave non-property owners who were male and black males the right to vote, many states, including Louisiana, continued the arcane practice of the Poll Tax.

It took a Populist like Huey Long to get the Poll Tax repealed in Louisiana.

For all intent and purposes, isn't a "Qualifying" Fee to be on the ballot and run for political office akin to a Poll Tax?

The qualifying fee is a financial impediment to everyday citizens running for office. But, that's why it's here - to keep elected officials and the chosen few in power while locking true citizen candidates out of the process.

Similarly, the Ethics Board, with it's arcane forms, ridiculous regulations, and focus on collecting late fees rather than investigating ethics violations and enforcing punishment on those who abuse the system, is designed to keep those in power and exclude those who don't have time to educate themselves on the Ethics Board's chicanery or who choose to forgo paying an accountant to file the forms.

Do you buy yard signs or pay an accountant to file forms?

For me, that was an easy answer. Of course, I've also been dinged for late fees.

So, while the Name-Changer-In-Chief Mike Yenni spends other people's money on $1,500 dinners and the Ben Zahn's of the political world figure out how they can charge their campaign accounts for more than 3 meals a day, I will be looking under my sofa cushions for loose change for gas money to trek to Baton Rouge when the Ethics Board files a law suit to collect $2,000 over my neglect to report $2.33.

Don't you just love Louisiana politics?