Louisiana lawmakers want to look at audits before public gets chance

Friday, July 31, 1998

Louisiana journalists are hoping to stop a proposal that would delay public access to certain state and local government reports before it has a chance to get started.

Until three years ago, the public and Louisiana legislators would at the same time receive copies of all audit reports detailing any discrepancies in the books kept by state and local agencies. Legislators then complained that they were collecting too much paperwork and asked that the reports be sent to them only on request.

Now the chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, Sen. Ron Bean, R-Shreveport, is sponsoring a bill instructing the state auditor to withhold audit reports from public view until they can be reviewed by the panel of legislators.

“I don't like reading about these things in the newspaper before I have a chance to look at them,” Bean said.

According to Bean, the legislation has not been formally heard by the council. He said: “Right now it's just a proposal. No vote is scheduled at this point.”

The measure is opposed by many journalists in the state who fear the implications of governmental interference with records that have long been considered public.

Among those are Mike Hasten, state editor of the Lafayette Advertiser and president of the Capitol Correspondents Association, a group of reporters who cover state government. He appeared before the council last week to contest the matter.

Hasten said: “This proposal has a tremendous impact on freedom of the press because the Legislature would then be screening what the public finds out about its own government, and I don't believe that the Constitution provides for that.”

Under the current system, the legislative auditor releases his reports to the public and the council on Mondays, three days after they are given to the governmental agencies being audited. The advisory council then reviews the reports and holds hearings on many of them.

Bean said the subjects of the audits shouldn't face unfavorable publicity until they have a chance to appear before the council and give their side of the story. “We want both sides to have a fair hearing.”

Hasten said that if members of the council want to see these audits at the same time that people are audited see them, they should direct the state auditors to send them a copy. “I'm hoping that will be the solution,” he said.

Frank May, Shreveport Times editorial page editor and an open-government advocate with the Society of Professional Journalists, also opposes the effort.

May said: “We don't like any attempt to allow the Legislature to intervene in the auditing process. …If they want the report, let them get it just like any member of the public.”

Hasten suggested that “there are some senators who don't want anyone knowing anything before they know it.”

However, Bean said of the measure: “It's the right thing to do.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.