Arkansas House may consider ethics changes in wake of state senate scandals

by George Jared ([email protected]) 456 views 

The Arkansas Senate recently passed new ethics policies in wake of a series of scandals involving members, and although there have been no allegations against current members of the Arkansas House, the legislative body may soon take action.

Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, told Talk Business & Politics House members have discussed passing new ethics policies. There has been a delay in consideration of changes due to the fact that House Speaker Jeremy Gillam recently resigned, and a new interim House Speaker Matthew Shepard had to be selected, Tosh said. He isn’t sure what specific changes could come, but he has one suggestion for Shepard, who will become the permanent speaker for the next term in January. All 100 members should have to disclose or list any financial dealings they have with any entity they’ve dealt with or could deal with while in the legislature.

“We have to make sure transparency exists,” Tosh said.

When Tosh was first elected in 2014, each House member was given $70,000 in general improvement funds (GIF) to dole out in their districts however the member chose, Tosh said. Each district has about 30,000 residents, and District 52, Tosh’s district, is one of the largest in the state stretching through Craighead, Poinsett, Jackson, and Independence counties. Those funds could be used, for example, to buy radios for a rural fire department. Many entities such as volunteer fire departments need these funds to survive, but corruption has ended the practice, he said. A district like his is rural and will have a serious impact on the quality of his constituents lives, he said.

“GIF funds can do a lot of good, but there was too much abuse,” Tosh said.

The Arkansas Senate adopted new rules to establish a select committee that can bring and hear ethics complaints against any member of the legislative body. The ethics package was approved, coincidentally, just one day after former Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $83,900 in restitution.

Files entered a guilty plea on Jan. 29 to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering, and one count of bank fraud. Court filings show between August 2016 and December 2016, while serving in the Arkansas State Senate, Files used his office to obtain GIF funds “through fraudulent means and for personal gain.”

Several senators have called for the resignation of Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who is tied to allegations in a multi-million-dollar plea agreement with indicted former Arkansas lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford. Last week, Talk Business & Politics identified Sen. Hutchinson as the previously unnamed “Senator A” mentioned in federal court filings and Cranford’s plea agreement.

That federal deal had implicated the Arkansas state senator, who is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for allegedly accepting more than $500,000 in cash and illegal inducements to provide services to Cranford and those associated with Springfield, Mo.-based Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH).

In addition to Sens. Files and Hutchinson, a federal jury returned a guilty verdict in early May against former Republican Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and consultant Randell Shelton for their involvement in a widespread kickback and bribery scheme. Over the past two years, other past senators and House members in both parties have also been indicted and charged for similar crimes.

Talk Business & Politics senior reporter Wesley Brown contributed to this report.