Special events are on the legislative schedule Thursday night — The Speaker’s Ball to fete Jeremy Gillam at the Little Rock Marriott and the Senate President Pro Tem’s dinner to toast Jonathan Dismang at the Old State House next door.
It took all day to get information about the events, which drew my attention because they are listed on the legislative schedule as being “by invitation only.” And the schedule listed no sponsors for the event.
So I wondered who was paying. If the public, the events clearly should be open under the Constitution’s requirement that all meetings of the House and Senate must be open to the public.
If the events are being paid by private funds, it raised a question of interpretation of Amendment 94, the so-called ethics amendment approved by voters in November. The amendment lengthened term limits, opened the door to a 150 percent pay raise for legislators and also nominally prevented gifts of any value to legislators by lobbyists or people who employ lobbyists. An exception to the no-gift rule was made for “planned activities” of official government bodies.
The legislature has driven a truck through the exception. If a cocktail party, breakfast, lunch or dinner is declared a “planned activity,” a special interest may pay for the food and drinks (or so the legislative leaders decided on their own) and they’ve been doing so lavishly. A standing lunch and cocktail hour by the nursing home lobby has been but one of many perversions of the “planned activity” exception.
But, though there’s been chafing, no one has disputed the interpretation that a planned activity of the Arkansas legislature must be open to the public under the Constitution and House and Senate rules. Until now.
I first got a purported invitation list from Ann Cornwell of the Senate staff. She sent this:
All former President Pro Tems and spouses
90th General Assembly Senator’s and Senator-elect, and spouses or guest
All full time staff and spouses
Gov & spouse
Lt. Gov & spouse
James Miller & spouse
But I still didn’t have an answer on sponsorship. I also asked if any lobbyists were invited. No responses. Then I asked under FOI for information about payment. Then I got this response from Cornwell.
While the dinner is a non-partisan event, it is a planned function of the RPA [Republican Party of Arkansas] and the Senate membership has been invited by the RPA to attend. The dinner is being paid for by the RPA. The intent of dinner is purely social. Based on previous Attorney General guidance, (Op. Atty’ Gen. Now. 2001-065, 95-020), the meetings are not subject to the FOIA and not required to be open to the public.
Shortly after, the House followed up with coincidentally similar language.
While the dinner is a non-partisan event, it is a planned function of the Republican Party of Arkansas and House membership has been invited to attend by the RPA. The event is paid for by the RPA.
The function is purely social and therefore is not required to be open to the public.
Any communication by House staff on behalf of the Speaker is confidential under Ark. Code Ann. 10-2-129.
I also finally got a late attendee list for the House:
House members, House staff, Constitutional Officers, Former Speakers. For other attendees, I would direct you to the RPA
I think the interpretation is wrong. An event is either a Republican event or it is a Senate/House function and thus open to the public. Attorney general opinions have no force of law, certainly none written more than a decade before the passage of Amendment 94. If it is a Republican event, are legislators allowed to take the freebies? Republican Party officials certainly lobby the legislature, but they don’t register as lobbyists.
But did the Republican Party solicit special interest contributions to pay for the dinner? Will any of those benefactors be present or credited during the events. Minor point: If the value of the dinner is more than $100 per person, it’s a prohibited gift, lobbyist or no lobbyist, under the old ethics law, which remains in effect.
I will ask the Ethics Commission for an opinion, by complaint if necessary. It has new and broader powers to enforce ethics laws under Amendment 94. But it is appointed by officials who control their budget and appoint the commissioners. They have been lenient on ethical matters to date ($400,000 worth of TV ads featuring Leslie Rutledge during the election season were not campaign ads).
I expect I’ll get a confirmation of what my daily Big Swill feature has demonstrated already. Amendment 94 is a joke, a Trojan horse that allowed its key mastermind, Sen. Jon Woods, and other Republicans who put it on the ballot to serve longer at higher pay and continue to be fed and watered by special interests. Their longer terms (18 years are possible for Woods) will allow them to accrue huge power and many more opportunities for rewards.
And now, we have a whole new loophole — a purely social event by a cutout organization that might use lobby money but not be an actual technical lobbyist itself. Free eats. Free booze. And it’s closed to Joe Taxpayer.
I get no satisfaction from an I-told-you-so — I wrote a column predicting this kind of trickery when Woods grafted on the enrichment clauses to Regnat Populus’ original clean ethics amendment. Sponsor Warwick Sabin went along in hopes of winning some other parts of the measure.
These big dos to treat chamber leaders like third-world potentates are a staple of recent legislative years. Chamber leaders wield a tremendous amount of power. Lobbyists lined up to throw lavish dinners for them toward the end of the session. They even passed a law allowing gifts for “recognition events” for the speaker and president in 2010. That law does not override Amendment 94, of course. But Amendment 94, we now know, means nothing.
Oh, and by the way
The nursing home lobby, the Arkansas Health Care Association, will have its daily free lunch at its Capitol Square Apartments hidey hole on Thursday. Public is welcome. There’s a sign pointing the way.