This article was produced in partnership with The Advocate, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
State Sen. Norby Chabert wanted to offer a helping hand to his district’s truck stop casinos.
The number of video poker machines allowed in the casinos is tied to how much gas the attached stations sell. Bridge construction projects in Chabert’s hometown of Houma have diverted traffic and hurt gas sales at nearby casinos, limiting the number of video poker machines they can have.
Earlier this year, Chabert supported a bill eliminating that link for truck stops more than 10 years old.
“Without the bridge being constructed, they would have hit every sales trigger that they needed,” he said of one such casino. “It was at one of the biggest intersections on the east side of Houma, and when you shut down a bridge in bayou country, people go to the next bridge … and it damn near shut them down,” Chabert told his colleagues in a Senate committee meeting.
What Chabert, a Republican, left out of the story: His own brother owns a truck stop on the east side of Houma that has been affected by the bridge construction.
Chabert acknowledged to The Advocate that his brother, Marty, matches the particulars of the story he told, but so do other truck stop casinos in his district. Marty Chabert earned $1.5 million in income from the truck stop in 2015 and 2016, according to the financial disclosure forms he filed as a member of the state Board of Regents.
The Advocate and ProPublica reported Wednesday that lawmakers are free to sponsor, advocate for and vote on legislation that benefits their own financial interests — so long as it benefits others, too. Norby Chabert’s situation and others like it show that legislators also can be involved in bills that directly benefit their relatives and professional clients.
Moreover, conflicts of interest in the Louisiana Legislature are entirely self-policed, meaning only lawmakers themselves can hold one another accountable for stepping over the line. That hasn’t happened in at least 40 years, experts say. Some political watchdogs say the laws should be tightened to ensure legislators are being transparent about their interests.
Norby Chabert said he was comfortable advocating for the bill because he did not stand to personally benefit from it. He said he did not discuss the legislation with his brother and said his brother was not a consideration when he voiced his support.
“Should I recuse myself from a hairdresser bill because my sister was a hairdresser? Should I recuse myself from bills dealing with the restaurant industry because my other sister owned a restaurant?” Norby Chabert said, citing examples from his own family. “I see no financial gain or loss from their business, so I don’t see how taking a position on issues related to their industry would be a conflict for me.”
Marty Chabert said he did not discuss the bill “or any other legislation with Norby” and wasn’t aware of the legislation until after it was passed. (Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law last month.) Marty Chabert previously served as a state senator and is now director of the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, a post appointed by the governor that pays $104,000 a year.
Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport pollster, said he thinks any time a legislator acts in a way that could benefit him or herself, or a relative or a client, it should trigger a recusal that discloses the reason.
“In other words, no wiggle room,” he said. “Any degree of self-interest should trigger recusal.”
An Attempted Crackdown Fails
More than a decade ago, the state Board of Ethics tried to take a stand against conflicts of interest in the Legislature, specifically cases where lawmakers were advocating for relatives.
In 2007, the board found that former New Orleans state Reps. Jeff Arnold, a Democrat, and Alex Heaton, a Republican, violated conflict-of-interest laws for strenuously fighting bills that would have eliminated the jobs of Heaton’s brother and Arnold’s father, who were Orleans Parish tax assessors.
But the two lawmakers claimed that the Ethics Board overstepped its powers, and they argued that the Louisiana Constitution protects lawmakers from being punished by the Ethics Board for participating in the legislative process. The Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal agreed.
In the end, it was the board that got scolded — not the lawmakers.
The decision effectively prevented the Board of Ethics from serving as a watchdog for legislative conflicts of interest — leaving it to lawmakers to penalize other lawmakers for such conflicts. If someone outside of the Legislature identifies a violation, it can be considered only if another member of the Legislature decides to take it up.
Dealing with entanglements is a tricky subject among state legislatures, many of them made up of part-time lawmakers who maintain full-time jobs. In Louisiana, the same rules apply to legislators voting on bills involving family members as do to their own interests — namely, lawmakers are allowed to vote on bills as long as they or relatives don’t benefit more than others in the same industry. In California, by contrast, a recusal would be triggered when a lawmaker, or immediate family member, might benefit from a bill affecting a business where they have at least a $2,000 investment.
In some cases, the conflict doesn’t present itself until after votes are cast.
State Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, was one of five legislators who sat on a task force that shaped proposed legislation overhauling Louisiana’s riverboat casino and gaming industry. He also chaired the Senate Judiciary B Committee, which considered and largely approved a slate of bills to relax gambling laws in Louisiana.
Smith voted in favor of two bills that were strongly backed by DiamondJacks Casino and Hotel. He co-sponsored one, which passed the Legislature, that will allow the state’s 15 riverboat casinos to move onshore and operate as traditional land-based casinos, with more room for games. The other, which failed, would have allowed DiamondJacks casino to relocate 300 miles south from Bossier City to Tangipahoa Parish.
Nine days after Smith cast his vote on the Senate floor to relocate DiamondJacks, the lobbying firm Capitol Partners hired Smith’s wife, Katherine, to join its team representing the casino, according to the state’s lobbyist registry.
Smith said he became aware of his wife’s job representing DiamondJacks only when he was questioned about it by a reporter.
“She has been a lobbyist for longer than I have known her,” Smith said. “We don’t discuss her clients and she has never lobbied me.”
He added that his wife’s relationship with the casino would not have influenced his decision because he’s consistently supported gambling interests, a contention supported by his voting record.
Katherine Smith, who has been a lobbyist since 2004, said she never talks to her husband about the bills she’s working on. The Smiths married in 2009.
“There is no conflict,” she said. “I would never ask him to do anything. It’s not legal.”
Jesse McCormick, a managing partner of Capitol Partners, said he started discussions with Katherine Smith about hiring her while the bill was pending in the Senate but after it had cleared her husband’s committee.
“We work on a lot of things together; she’s a trusted companion and she’s a really hard worker,” McCormick said of Smith.
Earlier this year, another legislator took a different path when faced with a vote that could conflict with his wife’s future employment.
Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, recused himself from a medical marijuana bill because his wife had been contacted about doing part-time bookkeeping for a company contracted to grow the plant.
“You just don’t want to give the appearance of impropriety,” Magee said. “I don’t want to do anything that looks like it’s affecting me personally.”
When a Day Job Collides With Writing Laws
Several lawmakers in the Legislature work day jobs as attorneys, which creates another avenue in which different interests can collide.
Lawmakers have distinct views on what constitutes a conflict. This year, for example, Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican who represents a local sheriff’s office, recused himself from a vote that could increase sheriff salaries 7 percent across the state.
Dwight said he didn’t think he was legally required to abstain but opted to sit out from the vote “out of an abundance of caution,” after discussing the matter with staff.
Meanwhile, Sens. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, and Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who are also attorneys representing local sheriffs, did not. They voted in favor of the bill, which passed.
Ward said the perception of a conflict didn’t occur to him at the time, because the bill moved quickly through the chamber and was not controversial. In the Senate, only one person voted against it.
“I’m an independent contractor for the sheriff, so if they do or don’t like the way I vote, they could no longer hire me, but I never thought of it as a conflict,” he said. “I do try to keep as clear of a line as possible, so if I didn’t do that here, I’m sorry about it.”
Martiny did not respond to requests for comment.
Another attorney, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, recused herself from voting on one bill that pertained to her client during the regular session, while sponsoring a similar bill that passed and was signed into law by the governor. The two pieces of legislation were frequently referred to as companion bills with the same group of backers.
Jackson, a Monroe Democrat, has represented physicians under investigation by the state medical board, including Dr. Greg Stephens, an Arkansas-based doctor who was disciplined by the board.
At the Capitol, she has worked to change the way doctors accused of misconduct are investigated.
Jackson said she was moved to act by doctors who had lost their licenses. She said they weren’t getting a fair shake under current board rules.
Jackson’s bill will prevent the board’s executive director from serving as the lead investigator into allegations against doctors, to make the investigations independent from the board and its staff. It also will change the board’s composition, by adding three members — one consumer member and two additional doctors to add more insights to the process.
And the bill will prohibit board employees from initiating investigations of doctors. Instead, they will have to stem from outside complaints, law enforcement reports or a two-thirds vote of the board.
In a House committee, state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, said he had reservations about the motivations behind Jackson’s bill, which passed the Legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
“Is there a reason for these policy changes? I mean, what’s going on?” Johnson asked Dr. Vincent Culotta, the executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners.
Culotta, who was testifying against the bill, pointed the finger elsewhere, saying, “I think you’d have to ask the makers and the people who push these bills.”
“I’m worried there’s a clash of personalities, and I’m worried we’re changing policy as a result of it and it’s concerning me,” Johnson said.
In April, Jackson told an Advocate reporter that she didn’t think her work with Stephens presented a conflict. She said she had no plans to recuse herself because she received no money from the board.
When the companion bill came before her in a House health committee, however, she did recuse herself, saying she did so on the advice of staff. She didn’t abstain from the debate entirely: Taking up her role as Stephens’ lawyer, she asked her colleagues to limit debate about his case.
“I have a client that is testifying before this committee which I have a monetary interest in his case,” Jackson said as she recused herself from the committee vote. “And of course, because he’s my client I would ask that not much more be discussed regarding his ongoing case before the board.”
Jackson said in an interview that she recused herself because Stephens was testifying and because he had written part of the bill, which included a provision that could have applied retroactively to his own case.
But despite that, Jackson took an active role in the debate, and when the committee chairman had to leave the room, she presided over part of the hearing.
Stephens and a member of his family also gave emotional testimony about the unfair treatment he received from the board. When a member of the board responded by reading aloud some of the accusations against the doctor, Jackson stopped him, saying it was unnecessary because committee members already had access to his records.
Records show that Stephens, a psychiatrist, performed a minor procedure on a patient without proper documentation. Stephens also was accused of leaving pre-signed prescription pads unattended and prescribing medicine to family members without adequate documentation.
Jackson said her own bill, which passed the Legislature, wouldn’t affect Stephens, so there was no conflict.
“My bill applies prospectively only and applies only to future cases,” she said.
Though he was against the original version of Jackson’s bill, Culotta, the state medical examiner, said he is comfortable with the version that passed.
“She did a good job at hammering out a compromise,” Culotta said.
Johnson, who raised the concerns about the pair of doctor bills, said he didn’t have a problem with the fact that Jackson’s bill was prompted by her clients’ concerns.
“We all bring bills based on our life experience,” he said. “Lawyers bring bills that affect lawyers; doctors bring bills that affect doctors.”
And as far as bills that affect clients?
“That’s her personal decision,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”
Pearson Cross, a political science professor and associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, acknowledged that it may be difficult to spell out in law exactly where legislators should draw the line when it comes to conflicts of interest. But he said in the absence of legal clarity, lawmakers should govern themselves with common sense.
“No law can substitute for good judgment in the end,” he said. “But, then again, we could probably be doing better than we are now.”