Shared from the 2018-06-15 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

Ethics proposal targets conflicts

Plan has ‘better guardrails’ for senators, Hendren says

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

State Sen. Jim Hendren (second from left) talks about ethics rules changes Thursday as he and fellow Sens. David Wallace (left), Jonathan Dismang (second from right), Keith Ingram and others unveil the proposals at a Capitol news conference.

Arkansas Senate leaders on Thursday proposed strengthening that body’s ethics rules that bar senators from certain activities involving conflicts of interest.

The new rules also will require more disclosure of other conflicts.

Along with several other senators on hand, Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs; Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy; and Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, unveiled the proposed changes at a news conference at the state Capitol.

The news conference came a week after lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford’s guilty plea in federal court accused “Senator A” — acknowledged as Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, by his attorney — of accepting payoffs along with former lawmakers Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, and Jon Woods, R-Springdale. Hutchinson, who hasn’t been charged or indicted, has denied any wrongdoing through his attorney.

So far, federal investigations in the past few years have led to convictions of five former state lawmakers: Rep. Micah Neal, R-Spring-dale; Rep. Eddie Cooper, D-Melbourne; Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and Woods and Wilkins.

Hendren, who is in line to be the Senate president pro tempore from 2019-21, said his top priority since he was chosen in March for the leadership job has been making changes to the ethics rules to protect that body’s integrity. He said he has been working with Ingram and other senators on the changes.

“This is not a response to any incidents that have happened. This is a response to all of them that have happened, not just in the last two years or three years, but in the last 20 years and 30 years,” said Hendren, a cousin of Sen. Hutchinson. Both are nephews of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

“This is a response to the fact that time and time again, we continue to have some people make poor decisions, and it is clear that we need to establish better guardrails for folks,” Hendren said.

Dismang, who is the president pro tempore until mid-January, said the “basic premise of what we want is … transparency, making sure that we understand when those conflicts [of interest] arise and also deterring the potential for those conflicts in the future.”

The Senate will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday to consider the changes. A two-thirds vote of the Senate’s 35 members will be required for approval.

The current rules ban certain conflicts of interest, but the new rules go into more detail of what senators should and should not do. The new rules also require more disclosure by attorneys and consultants.

The new rules would require that any senator under felony criminal indictment in any federal or state court relinquish any leadership position in the Senate, including committee chairmanships and party leadership positions. Late last year, the Senate Republican caucus adopted a similar policy.

A senator who is found guilty or pleads guilty to a felony and certain other offenses is prohibited from serving under Article 5, Section 9, of the Arkansas Constitution.

The proposed rules also would prohibit certain activities that involve conflicts of interest.

Hendren described these changes as “really the meat of this.”

For example, he said a senator would be barred from seeking or taking a benefit, other than official compensation, for public duties under the proposed rule changes, “so if someone pays you to do something in your role as a state senator,” it would be an ethical violation.

The rules also ban senators from participating in discussions and voting on proposals in committee and in the Senate on a matter that financially benefits them, a relative or an associated business. A senator would be able to participate if the interest is disclosed ahead of time.

That information could be placed on the Senate’s website so the public has easy access to that, said Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock.

“You’ve got farmers and bankers and lawyers and accountants who have other jobs, but also serve in the Legislature,” Hendren said.

“There are going to be times when we are considering legislation that will affect your particular industry or work and you need to disclose that or you can’t participate in that,” he said. “Because the fact is, when we have banking issues, I like to hear from a banker that I trust and is in the Legislature. I don’t want to necessarily ban him from participating in a discussion. It is fair that we all know that affects his industry, the same as if it’s a manufacturing issue, so you will see more disclosure about potential conflicts, so that people can continue to participate.

“[But] you still can’t come down here and pass legislation specifically for the financial benefit of yourself or your industry,” said Hendren.

The proposed changes also would require senators to file an annual financial disclosure statement with the secretary of the Senate with more details than is required on the state’s annual Statement of Financial Interest, which goes to the secretary of state’s office.

The Senate statement would list sources of income in categories of less than $1,000; from $1,000 to less than $12,500; from $12,500 to less than $50,000; and of at least $50,000.

The Statement of Financial Interest has two categories: sources of income above $1,000 and sources above $12,500.

A senator who is an attorney or a consultant would be required to reveal on his financial disclosure report the making or receiving of any referral for compensation for services.

The proposal would create a five-member Select Committee on Senate Ethics appointed by the president pro tempore with three members in the majority party and two members in the minority party.

Any senator who believed there was a violation of the code of ethics could file a complaint with the committee, which would investigate. The complaint would list the name of the accused, the accuser, the provision violated and a description of the suspect activities.

The Senate would be allowed to punish any violator with penalties ranging from a letter of caution to expulsion.

Dismang said existing rules require 18 senators to sign a petition in order to make a complaint alleging a violation of the Code of Ethics. That’s burdensome, he said.

Also under the proposal, each senator would be required to complete a legislative ethics course approved by the Select Committee on Senate Ethics between the general election and the 10th day of each regular session.

Hendren said he wants Sens. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; Jason Rapert, R-Conway; David Wallace, R-Leachville; Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia; and Bond to serve on the committee.

Hendren said the committee will be asked to begin work next week “so they can review what we have done here, see what changes or refinements or additions that need to be made … because this is more complicated than just going out and saying, ‘We are going to pass ethics rules.’

“We want to make sure that we don’t make it where good people can’t serve, but also make sure that people can trust what we are doing is aboveboard,” he said.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said, “This is something that has been badly needed for a long time.

“I know hindsight is 20/20. I know we had some good ethics bills this last session that could have helped in this area, even though they didn’t pass,” he said. “I think we need to look back at some of those bills that were run and maybe bring them back and take a second look at them.”

Stubblefield said a bill sponsored by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, would have barred lawmakers from appearing before a legislative panel as the attorney or consultant for another person, firm, corporation or entity. A bill sponsored by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, would have required Medicaid providers and government officials to file disclosure forms with the Department of Human Services.

Bond said lawmakers should consider legislation to create strong incentives for them to avoid certain behavior, such as, “maybe if you are convicted of certain things … you lose your state retirement benefits.”

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said the state House of Representatives’ rules “should go further than the Senate in shining the light on these” conflicts of interest.

“It shouldn’t just be a record in the journal somewhere,” he said.

Gov. Hutchinson said, “The Senate is taking a necessary step toward greater transparency and rules on conflicts of interest.

“The ethics committee is a particularly important reform that will enforce rules but also provide a member an opportunity to defend against unfounded charges. There are additional reforms that should be adopted to assure that public scrutiny is always shining brightly,” the governor said in a written statement. “I will be addressing these additional measures in the near future.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Henderson said, “The challenge of corruption in government is larger than the Senate and requires more than fine-tuning ethics rules in one chamber.

“I will release a continued set of ethics proposals Monday morning highlighting serious needs left unaddressed by the Senate’s proposals,” he said.

LIST OF the changes proposed for senators. Page 2A.

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