Still more evidence of the joke that is so-called “ethics reform” by the Arkansas legislature.
Tommy Wren of Melbourne, a Democrat defeated in a re-election bid in 2014, has gone to work for Mullenix and Associates, the high-powered lobbying firm that has been among the leaders in pressing ways to continue free wining and dining of legislators. It was the Mullenix outfit that strawbossed the scheme to launder lobby money through the Arkansas Republican Party to throw free feeds for legislators as an end-of-session royal tribute to kingpins Jeremy Gillam and Jonathan Dismang.
What? You thought legislators couldn’t become lobbyists for at least a year after leaving office — two years thanks to Amendment 94? The amendment — laughingly called ethics reform — extended term limits, has allowed a 150 percent pay raise for legislators and was recently used by legislation sponsored by anti-ethics guru Sen. Jon Woods to legitimize free breakfast, lunch, cocktail party, dinner and out-of-state jjunket entertainment for legislators. He also savaged ethics law by giving lawmakers a free pass when caught taking illegal gifts or filing erroneous campaign reports. They can “correct errors” in 30 days when caught and nothing will be entered on their permanent record.
But back to Wren and consulting. This is the same thing Rep. John Burris did after he got defeated in 2014. He became a “consultant.” He was frequently seen at the Capitol this year and a regular commentator/spinner on legislative affairs. Many legislators complained that their observations of Burris’ shoot-from-the-hip commentating and presence seemed an awful lot like lobbying to them.
This is an old scam, first perfected in Washington. The first thing you do when you get beaten is become a consultant, then when the time clock runs out, change your title to lobbyist (governmental affairs specialist). Tim Hutchinson, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Asa Hutchinson, Tim Griffin. They are but a few of the newly minted “consultants,” who’d command no such lucrative gigs but for their legislative resumes. Trading on public office, in other words. And there’s no law that can stop them.
But back to Wren, whose new status I learned of through a Tweet by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Michael Wickline:
He’ll stay in Melbourne and continue as the seventh-generation operator of a cattle farm.
But he’ll also draw full-time pay for Mullenix.
“I am going to work as a consultant,” he said.
“I would read bills and look at bills in their office and keep track of legislation and attend meetings when the legislature was in session to basically hear what’s going on in the legislative process and report back.”
Would he talk to legislators?
“I’m sure I’d say ‘hi’ to them, but as far as lobbying them for a vote, no.”
And if someone suggested appearances weren’t good?
“All I can do is tell you what I’m doing and you can perceive it any way you want to. There are guidelines and laws in place and I’m not going to step across that line. I appreciate the opportunity they’ve given me.”
Wren said he couldn’t recall if he’d ever carried legislation that Mullenix had ever backed for clients.
“I’m getting the job, I hope, because of the type of person I am. My word is good. I work hard. I got along with everyone in a bipartisan manner.” (Not enough to avoid a Republican opponent.)
He added, “I carried myself in a certain way and I’m going to continue to do that.”
So is what we have here the lobbying equivalent of dark money advertising? You can do just about anything any lobbyist would do, so long as you don’t specifically ask a legislator to vote for or against a bill? Just as you can spend any amount, coordiante with any candidate to whatever extent you like and so long as your million dollars worth of advertising doesn’t say “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate, the Ethics Commission will give you a free pass.
Can we stop kidding ourselves? Will someone please join me in grabbing a sock to stuff in the mouths of Jon Woods and the others when they start bragging about ethics reform?