State lawmakers roll out ethics reform package to address capitol corruption

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 894 views 

House and Senate leaders roll out their ethics reform measures.

Legislators from both the Republican and Democratic parties on Monday (Feb. 4) announced a gaggle of measures they hope to enact into state law to bolster ethics reform at the State Capitol.

In a 25-minute press conference at the Old Supreme Court Room, Senate President Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, told reporters that he and House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, had been working together for weeks to look at pragmatic ways to address corruption among public officials.

“This is a continuation of the effort that the Speaker and I have been working on since the beginning of the session to take some steps to restore trust in the legislative branch. Not just the [legislature] but the entire political process in Arkansas,” said Hendren, who was surrounded by 10 House and Senate members from both major parties.

Among the key proposals that lawmakers plan to file are six bills that address several issues. They include a measure that prohibits elected officials from serving as lobbyists and having multiple political action committees, or PACs, raising the maximum fine for ethics violations, and increasing the penalty for using campaign funds for personal use.

The proposals also include a measure to prevent lawmakers from getting contributions from multiple PACs, and a so-called retirement “clawback” provision for lawmakers who commit felony crimes as elected officials. A final proposal would support a request by the state Ethics Commission to change appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year to include funds for two additional staff positions and a $186,000 increase in the agency’s operating budget. All of those bills are expected to be filed by the end of business on Monday, lawmakers said.

Stressing that the ethics reform package was a bipartisan effort and not final, Hendren applauded Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, for spearheading the effort to bring both chambers together to draft the ethics reform measures amid an ongoing federal probe that has entrapped up to eight lawmakers from both parties.

“That is what the legislative process is for and I am sure that we will end up with legislation that does what we are after,” said Hendren, who opened up the Senate chamber and its committee meetings for live-streaming for more transparency at the start of the session. “What I appreciate … is what you see is what you don’t see in Washington, D.C. a lot, which is people working together to do something good for the institution. I appreciate the Democrats and Republicans coming together for that cause.”

In response to a volley of questions from reporters concerning the actual impact of the half-dozen proposals on legislative behavior and corruption, the House and Senate leaders said they were careful not to draft bills that criminalize mistakes or unintentional behavior. House Speaker Shepherd added that he and his colleagues are working on other proposals concerning ethical conduct at the Capitol that could be filed later in the session.

“This is not designed to be the final answer or ‘this is it’ as far as ethics go, but that this is always an ongoing process and there may be other bills or rules changes that you may otherwise see but we felt that it was important to go ahead and put forth several of the bills that we had already found consensus on,” said Shepherd, refusing to offer details of those discussions.

After the press conference, Sen. Ingram said other possible ethics reform legislation could be filed later in the session that deals with loans between lobbyists and fellow legislators, the infiltration of out-of-state “dark money” into state political races, and rule changes concerning General Improvement Funds, commonly referred to as GIF funds.

Ingram also said he believes that Democrats will support the comprehensive reform package, although members of his party have suggested that the proposals should go further and be more impactful.

“This is a bipartisan (effort), and one party could have run out there and taken credit for this thing and say, ‘look how ethical we are,’ but being around the legislature a long time we know that problems are not confined to one party,” said Ingram. “I think there can probably be some additional legislation behind this that might look at other areas …, but you know somebody that is bent on doing wrong, I learned a long time ago that they will figure a way around the rules.”

The ethics reform package comes more than three weeks after former State Senator Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, was indicted by a federal grand jury on Jan. 11 on charges of conspiracy, bribery and honest services wire fraud. He has since plead not guilty. Baker – a former legislator, lobbyist, UCA professor and administrator, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, and one-time U.S. Senate candidate – served in the Arkansas legislature from 2001 to 2013. He was chairman of the Joint Budget Committee during his tenure.

Earlier this summer, the Senate adopted its new ethics rules amid a flurry of recent federal indictments, plea deals and convictions involving bribery and corruption of public officials. In June, former Arkansas Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison by U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III. Files, who resigned his Senate seat in early February, reported to prison in August and must pay restitution of $83,900 for his guilty plea to charges of money laundering, wire fraud and bank fraud in a scandal involving General Improvement Funds (GIF).

After Files conviction, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, was indicted by a federal grand jury in late August for allegedly devising a scheme to steal thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and then falsifying state campaign finance reports and tax filings. The charges are part of the illegal activity involving former lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Arkansas elected officials in a multi-million-dollar scheme involving a Missouri nonprofit, Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH).

Hutchinson, who is Hendren’s first cousin, is also the son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He had been a state senator since 2011 and first came to the State Capitol as a state representative in 2000. He resigned from the 35-member body last summer after charges were filed and has denied any wrongdoing.

Two former Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Eddie Wayne Cooper of Melbourne and Henry “Hank” Wilkins of Pine Bluff, are also tied to the federal probe involving Cranford. A year ago, Cooper 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. Wilkins pleaded guilty last summer to conspiring to accept over $80,000 in bribes in exchange for influencing Arkansas state legislation and transactions, including steering approximately $245,000 in 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. In September, Neal was sentenced to three years of probation for his role in a kickback scheme concocted by Woods and others unknown persons to steal GIF dollars. He was ordered by a federal judge to pay $200,000 in restitution.

Woods, however, was sentenced to 18 years and four months in federal prison for his involvement in the widespread kickback and bribery scheme with Ecclesia College at the center. He was ordered to prison in late September as he was awaiting an appeal. A jury convicted the former Springdale senator of 15 felony counts related to public corruption, including conspiracy to commit fraud, money laundering, and mail and wire fraud.