Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Henderson said legislators convicted of crimes related to abuses of power should have their pensions revoked.
Henderson detailed a seven-point plan to combat government corruption Wednesday, the same day that former state Sen. Jon Woods was sentenced to 220 months in federal prison in a corruption scheme related to his efforts to funnel money to the private Ecclesia College.
Henderson said all public officials, including legislators, should have their state pensions revoked for committing crimes related to abuses of power. He said that currently the only crime that leads to such an outcome is “unlawful killing.” Revoking their pensions would deter corruption, he said.
Henderson also proposed increasing the current two-year ban on legislators to an amount equal to the number of years they have served in office. A legislator who has served 10 years would be prohibited from registering as a lobbyist for 10 years.
“A legislator that’s had that many years, they have a disproportionate amount of power,” he said. “They have a disproportionate amount of relationships, and I think that that increases the risk and the potential moral hazard that comes with them serving as lobbyists, and so I think that we need to scale that accordingly.”
Henderson called for ending all legislator-directed grants. Abuses of the state’s General Improvement Fund, from which legislators directed or influenced funding for specific projects, contributed to the convictions of the former legislators.
“The governor has consolidated these funds under his control, but we still don’t have a clear process to know how those funds are going to be distributed once they’re sent out regionally,” he said.
Henderson’s other proposals were:
– Prohibiting corporations from contributing to political action committees, as they are already prohibited from contributing directly to campaigns.
– Requiring legislators to weekly disclose employment and other forms of compensation they receive or have received in the previous year with lobbyists and firms that employ lobbyists.
– Requiring any organization involved in political activities to disclose its donors online.
– Strengthening the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
Five former legislators have been convicted on corruption-related charges brought about by a federal investigation that is now being accompanied by an investigation by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office.
Henderson noted that a sixth legislator, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, resigned Friday after being indicted. Henderson pointed out that Rep. Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs, remains in office despite being arrested for failing to pay income taxes since 2003.
“I can imagine the governor’s office would say that these incidents I’m citing are not his fault, and that may be true, but in my philosophy of leadership it is still your responsibility to take action when you see wrong things happening so that you can minimize the chances in which they happen in the future,” he said.
Concerning Henderson’s criticism that he has not been tough on corruption in the state Legislature, Hutchinson told reporters at a State Capitol press conference that he supported efforts to strengthen Ethics Commission penalties and also backed the Senate adoption of new policies on transparency and conflicts of interest.
Those policies followed the indictment of former lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford. Cranford pled guilty in June to bribing two of the convicted legislators, Woods and Rep. Hank Wilkins, along with an unnamed legislator that was later disclosed as Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, based on the plea documents. Sen. Hutchinson has said he is innocent of wrongdoing.
“Those are important steps that have been taken. The challenge that we face whenever it comes to bad actors in public service: It crosses administrations, it crosses party lines,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
The governor said the public should ask questions about Henderson’s relationship with Cranford, who will be sentenced Thursday. Cranford worked for Henderson when Henderson was the state director for Teach for America, which recruits professionals into underserved communities to teach.
Ask Henderson “about the role he played in hiring a lobbyist that has been convicted as he represented Teach for America that put in jeopardy really three million dollars of taxpayer money,” Hutchinson said. “So, Mr. Henderson probably needs to answer things about his relationship with Rusty Cranford, his relationship with the attempt to get money from Teach for America that I thought was a very genuine effort to bring teachers from out of state into Arkansas. So, if he wants to raise those (corruption) issues, he can answer those questions.”
Asked if he regretted hiring Cranford in his press conference, Henderson said, “Sure I do, but I will tell you what: I am proud of everything that I did in my work for Teach for America. We brought hundreds of teachers to some of the most underserved classrooms in this state. There are thousands of kids that have a better education because of the work that we did. … Obviously I wish I hadn’t done business with him, but every bit of business we did was above board, and it led to good things.”
He said Teach for America had been given $2 million in taxpayer money, not $3 million as stated by the governor. He said Cranford “introduced us to some folks that allowed us to get an audience into the governor’s office to make our case. That’s about it.”
Editor’s note: Wes Brown contributed to this report.