Jindal Aims to Clear Louisiana's Reputation

Louisiana's government has suffered its fair share of ethics problems. Sunday in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana legislature begins a special ethics reform session convened by the state's new governor, Bobby Jindal.

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For many the phrase Louisiana ethics has the sound of a political oxymoron like jumbo shrimp. Louisiana's new governor, Bobby Jindal, has pledged to change that. He's called a special session of the state legislature, which begins today, aimed at changing not just the state's ethics but also its reputation.

From New Orleans, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Louisiana's image is a place where kickbacks, cronyism and sweetheart contracts are part of the political culture really began in the 20s and 30s with Huey Long, the governor and U.S. senator who bragged that he bought legislators like sacks of potatoes.

But Louisiana's ethical problems aren't just ancient history. The state has a former governor, Edwin Edwards, currently in prison, and a U.S. Congressman, William Jefferson, under indictment. When he ran for governor, Republican Bobby Jindal made it a central part of his campaign.

Mr. BOBBY JINDAL (Governor, Louisiana): Number one we can do to create jobs in Louisiana, number one thing we can do, is to crack down on corruption. The legislature had a chance, they didn't get it done. When I'm governor I will.

ALLEN: The agenda Jindal's transition team has drawn up is an ambitious one. There are some 60 items dealing with everything from conflicts of interest, Legislators will no longer be able to bid on state contracts, to transparency for lobbyists. They'll now have to file monthly spending reports.

At first Jindal focused his ethics proposals squarely on the legislature, and that created some resentment. Rick Gallot is the chairman of Louisiana's House Committee on Government Affairs.

Mr. RICK GALLOT (Chairman, Louisiana House Committee on Government Affairs): There's been no legislator, at least in the seven years that I've served, to be charged with any type of public corruption. So the reality is that it's not going on. Now, it's the perception, again, that we're trying to address.

ALLEN: Louisiana's ethics overhaul has now been expanded to include all state employees, also parish and local officials. Currently Louisiana's ethics standards for legislators are among the weakest in the nation. And there's wide support amount senators and representatives to take measures that will strengthen the laws and help improve the state's image.

But as he was pressing his case for a special session, it was discovered that Governor Jindal had an ethics problem of his own. He was ordered to pay a fine for failing to properly disclose some campaign contributions. And a treasurer of his campaign says it's he, not the governor, who will pay the fine.

Barry Irwin, head of Council for a Better Louisiana, a good government group, says he thinks ultimately the legislature will embrace most of the governor's proposals, if he's willing to make some deals and some concessions.

Mr. BARRY IRWIN (Council for a Better Louisiana): I think he has to be careful that he's not bullying the legislature and not trying to force them into something that they're really uncomfortable with. But at the same time I think he has to provide the leadership and say this is something that's good for our state. I'm going to help you do this and we'll going to do this together and all take credit for it together.

ALLEN: One challenge will be how to improve enforcement. There are currently more than $800,000 in ethics fines in Louisiana that remain unpaid.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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