State Rep. Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) officially became Arkansas’s new Speaker of the House this morning with a vote of the House Caucus and will be sworn in later today in the Capitol rotunda. Today’s motion was only a formality; Shepherd won the race to succeed Jeremy Gillam, the outgoing speaker, back in March.
Speaker Shepherd spoke to the press afterward and was asked repeatedly about his plans for ethics reform. The Arkansas legislature is in the midst of a vast corruption scandal in which at least three former members of the House — of both parties — have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to bribes they received from former lobbyist Rusty Cranford and related entities. Multiple former senators have also pleaded guilty or been convicted, and the federal investigation has implicated at least one sitting senator, Jeremy Hutchinson. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a set of proposed ethics rules for members of the Senate that aims to create more accountability for senators.
But Shepherd would not say whether he’ll push for similar changes in the House.
“As with anything else, we’ll look to see what if any improvements we can make,” he said. “We’ll look at what the Senate’s done and see if that’s something we should adopt on the House end.” He noted that the House
The new speaker said “it remains to be seen” whether there need to be rule changes on the House side and said he wanted to talk to members first. “When I get past this transition period … I’ll make some decisions as to, is that something a committee needs to be looking at? Is that something that I will take the lead on? … The buck ultimately stops with me as the Speaker of the House. I’ve always tried to hold myself to a very high standard, and I’m going to expect that of the membership.”
When asked about his top priorities as speaker, Shepherd said ethics was number one. “It’s clearly an issue that’s been front and center over the last several months,” He acknowledged. But he again declined to give any specifics, saying it was appropriate for him to defer to the previous Speaker until Gillam resigned that position.
“He was still the man in charge, and he is certainly been one who has made ethics a priority. But in light of recent developments, and in light of what the Senate has proposed, I want to hear from membership. I have thoughts myself as to things we need to look at, but nothing I want to put out there right now,” Shepherd said.
Jeremy Gillam announced on June 6 he’d resign early to become a lobbyist for the University of Central Arkansas, a position that pays $130,000 annually. Typically, legislators are prohibited from taking lobbying jobs for two years after their legislative service ends. But public universities are considered state agencies, meaning they’re treated differently; the “cooling-off period” doesn’t apply to
Shepherd was asked today whether he thought that was appropriate and whether the loophole should be closed.
“I don’t whether I’d characterize it as a loophole. … We’ve had members resign to take various other opportunities, and so I don’t see that there’s anything that I would consider to be inappropriate about it,” he said. “There may be those that feel like there needs to be a discussion about whether things of this nature could occur in the future, but as we stand right now, this is something that’s clearly allowed by the system.”
Shepherd, 42, is a practicing attorney at an El Dorado firm, Shepherd & Shepherd (his brother is the other partner.) He graduated from