Arkansas Senate unveils new ethics rules amid federal bribery, kickback probes

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 691 views 

Arkansas Senate leaders on Thursday (June 14) unveiled a bipartisan draft of new chamber ethics rules that lawmakers hope will help restore public confidence in the legislature amid an ongoing federal bribery and embezzlement probe that has snared politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Although several senators said the amplified version of the Senate’s code of ethics were not released in response to recent calls for Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock to resign, Senate Pro Tempore-elect Jim Hendren, R-Gravette said he and Sen. Keith Ingram, a Democrat from West Memphis, have worked together over the past week to draft the new regulations for the upper chamber.

“So, I think we both realize this is a whole lot more important than political games or partisanship, this is about protecting the integrity of the institution,” said Hendren, a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “This is a starting point. This is draft, and the leadership doesn’t tell the members what to do. We provide direction and then we take input from all members and then we hopefully come together on something that we all can agree on.”

In outlining the rules that define and govern the ethical expectations of the 35 senators, Hendren said the draft rules will be reviewed by a newly-created Select Senate Committee that will the forward a final set of regulations for adoption by the full body at a regular business meeting on Tuesday, June 19.

Chief among the changes is a new policy that more clearly define prohibited Senate conduct and conflicts of interest. If adopted, that policy would prohibit any of the 35 senators from accepting any benefits in the performance of their legislative duties or anything offered with the intent to influence official conduct beyond their state-approved compensation.

In addition, the draft rules also would prevent a senator from knowingly seeking, accepting, using or granting public funds for a purpose other than that approved by state law, as well as making a false statement concerning the meting out of taxpayer-funded dollars.

The remaining rules would halt senators from profiting from activities related to their legislative obligations. Those prohibitions would prevent senators from acquiring a financial stake in any business that received positive economic benefits from Senate legislation, obtaining favors or payment from lobbyists or other entities that do business with the state of Arkansas, or performing acts that would harm a business a senator or family member competes against.

The draft rules include more robust financial disclosure requirements for Senate members. including a better accounting of total household income that a senator receives – ranging from salaries, investment profits and real estate holdings to retainers, consulting fees, business income and other compensation.

The nine-page draft provides for creating the Select Committee on Senate Ethics that would consist of five senators, including two minority members, appointed by the President Pro Tempore. Any member of the Senate would be able to petition the five-member panel to investigate alleged violations of the chamber’s code of ethics.

If charges were brought against a senator the petition must include the accused member’s name, the name of the accusing lawmaker, the code of ethics provision that has been violated, and a description of the alleged unethical activity. Once a petition is made, the select Senate committee would have 10 days to start the investigation, which would be open to the public. At the end of the hearing process, the committee will submit its findings and recommendations within 20 days to the Senate president for consideration by the full chamber. Eighteen votes, or a majority of the Senate, would be required to find a senator in violation of the chamber’s ethics code.

Depending on the ethical violation, discipline for a Senate violator could mean a slap on the wrist with a letter of caution, the loss of seniority, committee and leadership assignments, temporary suspension, or expulsion from the chamber. Disciplinary action could also include a combination of one or more of those penalties, or other measures as determined by the full body.

Following the unveiling of the pending Senate ethic rules, Hendren and other senators attending the meeting engaged in a vigorous back-and-forth with reporters who questioned the timing of the new ethics rules amid last week’s federal plea deal that implicated Sen. Hutchinson for allegedly accepting more than $500,000 in cash and illegal inducements from a former Arkansas lobbyist.

A week ago, U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison for the Western District of Missouri’s announced that Milton “Rusty” Cranford had pleaded guilty to bribing Arkansas elected officials in a multi-million-dollar scheme, and then along with other charity executives, embezzled millions of dollars from the Missouri nonprofit that provides healthcare services in nearly 50 communities across the state.

On Monday, Talk Business & Politics identified Sen. Hutchinson, a Little Rock attorney who is also the governor’s nephew and Hendren’s first cousin, is the previously unnamed “Senator A” mentioned in federal court filings and Cranford’s plea agreement.

Sen. Hendren defended the work of the Senate after several reporters questioned why the 35-member body only took up revamping the chamber’s ethics rules after a string of federal indictments involving bribery, kickbacks and embezzlement charges have entrapped several lawmakers over the past six months.

“We have a lot of work to do, but it is the right thing to do because we care about the integrity of the Senate. There’s a lot of good people down here trying to do the right thing and we need to make sure they can do it and not be distracted by some of the stuff that are going on,” Hendren said of the ongoing federal probe.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, however, reminded that past attempts by the Senate to adopt new ethic regulations were rejected by the 35-member chamber during the 2017 legislative session. The sponsors of those bills, Sens. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas and Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, were both defeated in recent primary races to return to the Senate.

“This is something that I think has been badly needed for a long time. And I know hindsight is 20-20, but there were some good ethics bill in the last session that could have helped in this area even though they didn’t pass. You can’t go back and change any of that, and they probably wouldn’t have stop any of this stuff,” said Stubblefield.

Besides the recent murmuring at the State Capitol surrounding Sen. Hutchinson, former Sen. Jake 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. He resigned his Senate seat in early February. Files’ sentencing is set for 10 a.m., June 18 at the federal courthouse in Fort Smith.

Two former Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Eddie Wayne Cooper of Melbourne and Henry “Hank” Wilkins, are also tied to the federal probe involving Cranford. In February, pleaded guilty in federal court for his role in a conspiracy to embezzle more than $4 million from a Springfield, Mo.-based health care charity. Last month, Wilkins pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept over $80,000 in bribes in exchange for influencing Arkansas state legislation and transactions, including steering approximately $245,000 in Arkansas General Improvement (GIF) funds to his co-conspirators.

GIF spending was also at the root of another investigation involving former State Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, both Republicans from Springdale. A federal grand jury returned a guilty verdict against Woods on May 3 in the widespread kickback and bribery scheme, while Neal confessed to funneling public money through a private Christian school to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District.

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, who watched as the Senate leaders rolled out their draft ethic rules, said he hopes incoming House Speaker Matthew Shephard of El Dorado follows a similar strategy and considers adopting new ethics rules for the lower chamber.

“That is going to be under the purview of Rep. Shepherd, but I think we better,” Gray said, warning of possible blowback from Arkansas voters. “There’s a lot of chatter around this, we’ve had a some opportunities especially in the couple of legislative sessions to address some of these issues.”

Besides updating the code of ethics rules for the House and Senate, Gray and Hendren said they believe the legislature could consider more ethics legislation in the 2019 session. The Democratic Party leader said he hope lawmakers take a deeper look at GIF spending, the revolving doors for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists, and revisit the conflict of interest rules involving family members.