For four decades, Gray Sexton was the face of ethics in Louisiana.
Now, the former chief administrator for the Board of Ethics is fighting for the other side, defending public officials accused of breaking the rules.
His client list includes Mayor Kip Holden, former State Licensing Board of Contractors member Donald Lambert Sr., St. John Parish Councilman Steve Lee and former New Orleans-area state Senate candidate Shawn Barney.
He will testify in federal court next month on behalf of Mark St. Pierre, the businessman accused of paying kickbacks to the convicted ex-New Orleans technology director Greg Meffert.
And he has already won two major victories against the Ethics Board, both of which lessen its authority in policing politics and government. In one case, a Baton Rouge judge begrudgingly decided the board no longer had the ability to rule on campaign finance violations. In the other, another judge concluded that all reports and records the board compiles during its investigation must be turned over to the accused.
So how is it that the man who was once Louisiana’s biggest ethics advocate has now emerged as one of its most formidable legal adversaries?
Sexton acknowledges that he has taken some heat for switching sides, so to speak, but he likens it to a former prosecutor becoming a defense lawyer or vice versa.
“That’s a fair criticism,” he says. “It’s a fair statement to make, that if you spend 40 years working to develop and advance a program, there’s something discordant about taking on the responsibility of defending those who are subsequently charged with violations of that program.
“But experience and talent and skill usually drive what lawyers do with their careers, so it’s predictable that most lawyers will continue in the venue in which they develop their experience.”
A six-month gig
Sexton grew up in Pineville, where his mother taught school and his father had a broadcasting career for KALB-TV. He fell in love with the law at an early age.
He graduated from LSU Law School in 1966 and went to work for Taylor Porter. After several years with the firm, he wanted his own practice, but needed what he calls a “short transition.”
The Ethics Board was looking for an attorney, so Sexton took the job, thinking he would remain there for just six months. He stayed for 40 years.
“It was the most interesting, most challenging, most rewarding opportunity any young lawyer could have ever had,” he says. “It provided a truly amazing opportunity for my career.”
Believe it or not, Louisiana was one of the first states in the nation to enact an ethics code, just two years before Sexton signed on. At the time, the code was considered a model for others.
It remained one of the strongest, most far-reaching and universally acclaimed codes, Sexton says, until the mid-1980s, when all of the special-interest exceptions enacted by the Legislature started eroding its effectiveness. More than 125 have been adopted.
“Those have undermined the overall fairness and evenhandedness of the ethics code and, in my opinion, undermined public confidence in the program,” he says. “And then, of course, in 2007 and 2008, massive changes were made to the code that have further diminished its efficacy.”
The agency’s role has always been an arduous one, even then. One of the administration’s challenges remains that many of its staff members have no experience in the general practice of law, thus lacking trial advocacy experience.
Nor has the agency had many advocates outside its own walls. It has never been popular with elected officials in general—or the Legislature in particular—and save for the occasional newspaper editorial, seldom has a constituency to champion its strength and independence.
Even so, during Sexton’s tenure, the Ethics Board prevailed in virtually all of its major cases: against a former insurance commissioner who eventually went to jail for his crimes, against an insurance company that was eventually dismantled, against a governor’s son and against the Louisiana Mineral Board.
His own ethical dilemma
In 2007, the ethics chief’s own ethics came into question. Lawmakers started questioning whether it was appropriate for Sexton to maintain a private law practice on the side while serving as Louisiana’s top ethics cop.
The Legislature passed a bill stipulating that he focus full-time on his agency job the following year, and, late in the process, added a measure forcing him to disclose his clients. The latter was not sought by LA Ethics 1, the organization that backed the bill in its original form.
At issue were potential conflicts of interest. Sexton for years has represented Lane Grigsby, a Louisiana businessman who has been known to make and break many a political career. That same year, Business Report described Grigsby as “one of the most influential men in Louisiana politics.”
In 2006, members of the Jefferson Parish Council had intended to seek Ethics Board intervention after having hired one contractor to build safehouses for the east bank pump operators and a second contractor to inspect the work. The council later discovered that Grigsby was the owner of Cajun Constructors, which was building the pumps, and held an interest in Kyle Associates, which was hired to inspect them.
Sexton, a registered agent for both firms, appeared before the council in his role as a private attorney to endorse the legitimacy of the arrangement. The matter became a public controversy when Sexton resigned, then went back to work for the agency as an adviser, admittedly to avoid disclosing his private business affairs.
Then-Rep. William Daniel IV of Baton Rouge, author of the 2007 bill, called it a “back-room deal.”
“They’ve made a decision that I think reflects poorly on their judgment,” he said. “That is just the Ethics Board having worse ethics than the people they are trying to police.” He did not respond to an interview request.
Today, Sexton says that maintaining his private practice while heading up the ethics administration posed no conflicts. The problem with government lawyers, he adds, is that they often lack such experience in general practice.
“Without exception, the lawyers that worked with me were superior students in law school, well trained, thoroughly professional and passionate about what they did,” he says. “But most of them were young, and virtually none of them had civil experience, and were not in a position to develop trial advocacy credentials with the ethics board, given the way it functioned. It was not their fault.”
Life after government
After leaving the ethics administration, Sexton had to wait a mandatory two years before taking on any clients who were squaring off against his former employer.
In 2008, though, he made front-page headlines again, as a vocal critic of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s new ethics law. It was shortly after all but one of the Ethics Board members had resigned.
Sexton’s criticism centered on the new “clear and convincing” standard, which would make it more difficult to prove violations against government officials, and the fact that Jindal would be appointing a majority of the board in one fell swoop.
Even today, he disagrees with one of the cornerstones of the law, which ended the practice of the Ethics Board being the investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. Judicial power now rests with administrative law judges; the ethics administration only investigates and prosecutes cases.
If anything, Sexton says, the accused had too much due process under the old system. That the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court validated virtually every decision of the Ethics Board during its existence, he says, is “testament to the basic fairness of the manner in which the program was administered.”
“The whole idea of an administrative agency is to have independent decision makers that are skilled in the work of the program and through experience and dedication to a particular set of statutes can develop the wisdom and talent to fairly administer the particular law,” he says. “That’s the way all administrative agencies work—licensing boards, school boards and other ethics programs—throughout the United States. It’s the way those programs work best, in my opinion.”
Taking them on
Discerning where Sexton really stands on ethics in Louisiana isn’t always easy.
On the one hand, he laments that recent reforms have “significantly weakened the overall framework of the ethics program.”
But as a defense attorney, he himself has helped to erode the authority of the ethics administration even further.
While defending Barney, a former state Senate candidate from New Orleans, Sexton argued that the Ethics Board had no authority to assess penalties for late filing or failure to file reports. Such power, he insisted, rests with the Ethics Adjudicatory Board.
In November, State District Judge William Morvant begrudgingly agreed. “It’s going to hamstring the ability of the Ethics Board to function even more so than prior legislation has,” he said. “If the goal was to streamline this and make its function easier, it sorely missed its point.”
And in January, Sexton and attorney Edward Songy Jr. helped convince State District Judge Janice Clark that St. Gabriel Police Chief Kevin Ambeau was entitled to all reports and records the Ethics Board compiled during its investigation.
“You certainly can make a compelling argument that if a governmental agency is going to charge you with a violation, at a minimum you should have a right to know that information and how the deliberative process unfolded that led to the filing of those challenges,” Sexton says. “There are not many things you can accuse an elected official of that are more egregious than being unethical.”
Current Ethics Board Chairman Frank Simoneaux acknowledges Sexton has emerged as the agency’s “lead challenger.” He doesn’t know if Sexton’s motivation is a simmering political grudge or simply experience in the field.
“I really don’t know what his personal views are toward the board,” Simoneaux says. “He is a very serious litigator. He parses a lot of words—that is, he looks at them very carefully—and he is an experienced litigator in these matters. He is much more experienced than our staff currently is, so he starts off, if you will, with an edge. But you know, it’s a free country and a free state, so if he wants to represent these clients, it’s entirely plausible.”
The board isn’t disputing Sexton’s victory in the case before Morvant. But Sexton’s argument before Clark, Simoneaux says, was very overreaching and could have lasting implications for future investigations. Current ethics administrator Kathleen Allen has asked the judge to reconsider her ruling.
Ever the paradox, Sexton—with two major victories now under his belt—yearns still for a strong, independent agency to police wayward politicians and government officials. The state he insists, doesn’t have one.
“Louisiana has always had a troubled history of corruption, self-dealing, favoritism, cronyism and nepotism,” he says. “I’m not sure how fair that perception is, but unfortunately, perception is reality. I believe that a strong, independent, well-funded ethics program with a statute that is uniform and applies to all governmental officials without special exceptions would be in the interest of Louisiana’s future.”