Sens. Files, Lindsey seek balance in ethics reform

by The City Wire staff ( 7 views 

Even though the Arkansas Ethics Commission has admitted to being "spread pretty thin," senators on both sides of the aisle say the best approach to ethics reform would be to wait until the 2015 regular legislative session instead of calling a special session or attempting to pass legislation during the fiscal session.

The admission from the AEC came to light during an investigation by The City Wire content partner Talk Business, which looked at how the commission holds lawmakers accountable for filing proper campaign fundraising and expenditure reports, among other items. The report revealed that the commission "relies heavily on citizen complaints before investigating whether filed reports are in compliance. … Such a system relies in part on watchdogs in the media, but even more heavily on groups that have an interest in exposing candidates who are in violation of the law. Of course, the main source of this type of complaint stems from political opponents and the opposing political party of a candidate."

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said he was aware of the problems before the Talk Business report shed light on the issue.

"I knew that was the case because of prior campaigns where opponents have not reported correctly and when I called the Ethics Commission about it, (they said) someone would have to file a complaint before they'd do anything," he said.

Files said addressing ethics reform would be necessary, especially in light of the resignation of Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, following his reprimand and $8,000 fine from the AEC for improper spending of nearly $50,000 from his campaign account last year, a race he won with no opposition.

"It's a tough situation because I want there to be a lot of transparency, but I also think that because one guy is doing something, not everyone is doing it."

Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, said he's certain changes will be made in the next regular legislative session, even though it will be well more than a year after Bookout's resignation.

"I don't think there's any doubt that this is going to be a front burner. Ethics reform has been out there for a while and obviously in the last month or so, it's taken front and center stage. I don't think it's going away," he said. "I think there will be very thoughtful work between now and the 2015 session about what needs to be done."

Lindsey specifically mentioned HJR 1009, which was proposed as a constitutional amendment by Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, as a step in the right direction, though he'd like to see something with more teeth. Sabin's proposed amendment, which will be on the ballot in the November 2014 general election, would ban gifts to all legislators, ban corporate and union donations to candidates and extend the current one year ban on legislators becoming lobbyists to a two year ban.

"I think (Rep. Sabin's) bill is a step in the right direction, but it's watered down to where it doesn't do much. I think there will be a discussion to try to find something that makes sense. Obviously, being complaint-driven is not working."

Files said he just does not want to throw money at a problem, such as hiring a lot of enforcement officials at the AEC, if that is not the best solution to fix the problem.

"There's not a lot of enforcement power (in the AEC). Had no one brought up the complaint, there was no way it would have been known. But I think there's a balance between a full out investigative team and what they're doing now."

Simply having issues such as Bookout's come to the forefront will aid the AEC, Files said, because more people will be going through the reports with "a fine-toothed comb."

Before any legislation is proposed whether as a part of an appropriations bill in the fiscal session or during the regular 2015 session, Lindsey said it would be imperative to see what other states do in order to see what works and what does not.

"I would be curious (to see) what other states do in how campaign finance is reported and what kind of oversight (there is) or sanctions for errors or willingly violating the law," he said.

Lindsey added that he does not think Arkansas' public officials have an inherent ethics problem, even with the recent case of Bookout, the arrest and resignation of State Treasurer Martha Shoffner for accepting bribes and steering state contracts to a particular investment company and the recent ruling that Secretary of State Mark Martin's office violated the law by hiring outside counsel instead of using staff attorneys or the attorney general's office for legal services.

"I don't think Arkansas has an ethics problem unique in and of itself. I think our system may be out of whack (compared) to other states."

Files acknowledged that ethics reform is now being taken more seriously than ever by the members of the General Assembly, but any reforms should be well thought out and should not completely change a system that he asserts has worked, even in light of Bookout's resignation and the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing.

"People should be adequately punished for what they do, but to completely change the system that has been in place and seemingly worked well, I don't know that that's ever been the case of good policy. I'm also not saying I would not be for something before the 2015 session, but there's been no cry to do something tomorrow and have everybody look at it."