Gov. Asa Hutchinson closed out the annual Arkansas Bar Association (ABA) meeting in Hot Springs on Friday (June 15) by urging Arkansans not to rush to judgment concerning the ongoing federal bribery probe involving his nephew and other state lawmakers, but he still used the forum to lay out a few ethics proposals he hopes will help address legislative misconduct at the State Capitol.
Noting all the media attention this week concerning the June 6 plea deal for indicted Arkansas lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford that have led to calls for Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock to resign, the popular Republican governor told attorneys gathered at the ABA’s three-day annual conference at the Hot Springs Convention Center that he felt it necessary to express his views due to the mounting media attention.
“There has been a lot of controversy and a lot of questions about it and calls for resignations, so I have been asked to comment. I think I have been asked to comment as governor and also … based on the fact that one of the individuals that has his picture in the paper is my nephew, who I love – Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson.
“So, for those reasons, I’ve been asked to comment. And for various reasons, I said, ‘I’ll just talk about it at the (Arkansas) Bar Association. And it sounded like a good idea three or four days ago (but) as I got close, I thought – ‘What do I really have to say about this?” Hutchinson said as the attorney-filled crowed roared with laughter.
Turning to a more serious note concerning allegations tying Sen. Hutchinson to a multi-million-dollar scheme revealed in the plea deal announced last week by U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison of Missouri, the governor said he was indeed “troubled” by the fact that current and former public officials have been indicted and pleaded guilty “for serious breaches of the public trust.”
“It bothers me, it concerns me, and I certainly support transparency, getting the information and making the right decisions and letting our criminal justice system work,” he said.
A week ago, in a pen-and-pad with reporters at his State Capitol offices, Hutchinson would not directly address questions if he would ask his nephew to resign if he turned out to be the unnamed “Senator A” identified in the federal indictment. However, he did reiterate that “if Senator A is indicted, then he or she should resign.”
On Monday, Talk Business & Politics identified Sen. Hutchinson as the previously unnamed “Senator A” mentioned in federal court filings and Cranford’s plea agreement. At the time, Sen. Hutchinson’s Little Rock-based attorney, Tim Dudley, bristled at any suggestion that his client and nephew of the governor had accepted a bribe or should resign from the Arkansas Senate, where he serves as chairman of the body’s Judiciary Committee.
On the previous day, the Arkansas Senate unveiled a bipartisan draft of new chamber ethics rules that lawmakers hope will help restore public confidence in the legislature.
Those rules were drafted by Senate Pro Tempore-elect Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who is also the governor’s nephew.
At the ABA meeting, as Dudley quietly listened in the audience, Gov. Hutchinson also cautioned against asking for the resignation of his nephew and other lawmakers that have not been indicted or charged with a crime based on court filings without any due process. “We need to wait and don’t jump to conclusions and let the system work,” he said.
In further explaining his views, Hutchinson told the legal-friendly ABA audience that lawyers understand due process and can see different sides of a story. As an example, he cited several instances where public officials at both the state and federal level have been indicted or charged with a crime, but charges were later dropped or that person was exonerated or found not guilty during a trial.
Hutchinson said in the recent cases of Arkansas lawmakers that were accused of ethical violations, misconduct or other wrongdoings, he did not ask them to resign before indictments of criminal charges were brought by prosecutors. Noting the cases of Sens. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro, Jon Woods of Springdale, Jake Files of Fort Smith and Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale, Hutchinson said those officials eventually resigned because of public pressure or after conversations with their legislative peers.
“If you will note my history, whether it was Sen. Bookout who had ethical violations charged against him, I did not call for his resignation,” the Republican governor said of the Northeast Arkansas Democrat who plead guilty in March 2015 to mail fraud and served less than 18 months in federal prison. “I thought you had to go through due process and the same with other (cases) prior to their indictments.”
In the court of public opinion, Hutchinson said there are “two extremes.” One calls for the immediate resignation of those accused of improper behavior without due process, he said, and the other side allows public officials that have been indicted, charged and convicted of ethical misconduct to continue to serve in office.
“As we sit back and are patient about this, we ought to avoid the extremes,” said Hutchinson. “Let’s step back and let the justice system work, let the investigation be completed with charges and final results. In this climate, I’ve said if a legislative member is charged federally, then it is appropriate to call for their resignation.”
ETHICS, PACS, SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY AND ISSUE No. 1
Going into the 2019 legislative session that begins in January, Hutchinson said he will ask the General Assembly to review the rules of the Arkansas Ethics Commission and give the panel more authority to punish legislative and political conduct beyond the current letter of reprimand and puny fines of between $50 to $2,000.
He also said he will ask the legislature to change the rules concerning organization that use multiple Political Action Committees or 501(c)4 nonprofits to funnel money to a single political candidate. Earlier this year ahead of the May primaries, Hutchinson criticized Fayetteville-based Conduit for Action and its founders of skirting state campaign finance rules by using affiliated multiple PACs to give legislative candidates near or up to the maximum amount allowable under state law at $2,700.
However, Conduit for Action spokeswoman Brenda Vassaur Taylor, whose organization has been openly critical of the ongoing bribery scandal involving the governor’s nephew and other state lawmakers, has countered that the state’s PAC rules are made by the legislature and signed by the governor.
“The legislature and the people set and reset the laws in this arena. We abide by each of them as written,” Vassar said in a past interview with Talk Business & Politics.
Hutchinson said he does not think the legislature needs any new regulations on General Improvement Funds (GIF), which are leftover surplus dollars at the center of the ongoing bribery scandal. At his behest, Hutchinson said GIF payments were essentially halted during the 2017 regular session following a state high court decision ruling that the legislature’s pork barrel spending unconstitutional.
Toward the end of his 45-minute ABA speech, Hutchinson said his executive staff is looking at crafting a clearer policy on the state’s sovereign immunity law, which has raised fears in the state’s legal community that any lawsuit brought against the state could be thrown out by the courts. He said he hopes that the legislature can introduce a better sovereign immunity rule that will allow some exemptions in cases where state officials have acted in bad faith, fraudulently or beyond their state-approved authority.
In speaking to reporters after the luncheon event, Hutchinson also commented on Issue No. 1, the controversial tort reform constitutional amendment on the November ballot that was also a discussion point at the annual ABA convention.
If approved by voters, Issue No. 1 would limit punitive damages to the greater of $500,000 or three times the compensatory judgment; noneconomic damages to $500,000; and attorneys’ contingency fees to one-third of the judgment. The amendment, which is opposed by the ABA, would also give the Legislature increased oversight over the Arkansas Supreme Court’s procedural rules.
Surrounded by ABA officials, Hutchinson smiled and said he is currently neutral on the controversial initiative and said he would continue studying the issue before casting his vote in the fall. When asked if he would support either side, the governor reiterated he would wait until later before making his views public.
“I am forming opinions on it, but that is going to be a very contentious fight and I don’t won’t to weigh in on that until later this fall,” he said. “I will tell you how I am going to vote on it before the election.”