The Arkansas Senate convened Tuesday for a rare “business meeting” to amend the chamber’s ethics rules, approving a variety of changes that will require greater financial disclosure by members and create a Select Committee on Senate Ethics to hear alleged violations.
The changes, spearheaded by incoming Senate President Pro Tem Jim Hendren of Gravette (who is currently the Republican majority leader), passed the Senate on a voice vote. The only “No” came from Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), who told reporters later that he was concerned the rules might have unintended consequences and that they constituted more of a cosmetic change than a substantive fix. He pointed out that a large number of members weren’t present in the chamber today for passage.
The rules approved today are substantially the same as the draft unveiled by Hendren on Thursday. One key change is that the ethics committee has been expanded from five to eight members, three of which will come from the minority party.
Though Hendren and other senators have been averse to saying so explicitly, the rule change was prompted by a flood of revelations of widespread corruption in the legislature. Two former senators, Jake Files of Fort Smith and Hank Wilkins of Pine Bluff, have pleaded guilty to financial wrongdoing. Just this week, Files was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. (Files is a Republican; Wilkins is a Democrat.) Another former Republican senator, Jon Woods of Springdale, was convicted of multiple counts of bribery in May. And a sitting senator, Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), is implicated in the recent guilty plea of a former lobbyist, Rusty Cranford, who admitted to the FBI that he provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to multiple legislators over the course of several years. Hutchinson was not present in the Senate today.
The Senate also swore in its two newest members on Tuesday, both Republicans: Breanne Davis of Russellville, who fills the seat left vacant by the death of Greg Standridge, and Ricky Hall of Cabot, who will succeed Eddie Joe Williams. Williams left the seat for a federal appointment.
Hendren said that ethics reform was to be his top priority as the new leader of the Senate. “Corruption is bipartisan and the fix needs to be bipartisan,” he said. “This does not need to be something we need to play political games with.” He thanked Democrats for working with him to craft the rules.
Hendren said the newly created ethics committee would need to develop procedures for implementing the rules between now and the beginning of the 2019 regular session in January, as well as come up with any changes that might need to be made. “I read a study where right now our ethics and rules are about 46th out of 50 in the country. My charge to the ethics committee is let’s take us to number one, or in the top 10 at least,” he said. (Each time a new session begins, the Senate passes its rules anew — normally a pro forma process — so technically speaking, the rules passed today apply to the Senate in the interim between sessions.)
Some members had questions for Hendren. Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) appeared skeptical of the new disclosure brackets which would require senators to report their financial interests in one of four categories: $0 to $1,000, $1,000 to $12,500, $12,500 to $50,000, and above $50,000. Previously, senators only have had to disclose a financial interest if it’s above $12,500.
“So if you do a workshop and get paid $50, we’ve got to put that down — is that what you’re saying to us?” Chesterfield asked. “Every $50, $10, $20 or $5 — all that has to be reported?” Hendren said that it would be.
Later, Hendren clarified to the Senate that the first disclosure report wouldn’t be due until January 31, 2019. Nonetheless, he argued that it was necessary to pass them now, so as to get the ethics committee working. “The value we’ll have had is … having had five months to make sure we’ve got it right,” he said.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) expressed concern that the rules could require granular reporting of sources of income — individual renters, for example — and that it could effectively require members to make public the financial information of others, such as their business partners. He also questioned the disclosure brackets. “To me, if we’re going to have rules that actually define whether something is ethical … I really don’t know why we have to have amounts in here,” he said. “There may be members here that feel like, as long as all of their compensation is being acquired legally and ethically, what is it anybody’s business how much money your corporation or your business is making?”
Hendren said that the income reporting brackets had been “significantly reduced from the proposal that we got” based on other states’ requirements. “The big loophole we have right now is, you don’t have to report anything less than $12,500. You can take $10,000 from people all day long. So this says that you’ve got to clarify where this revenue is coming from, and I think that’s important,” Hendren said.
Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) questioned whether the process was too rushed. “Why could you not create the ethics committee and turn this over to them?” he asked Hendren. The majority leader replied that deferring action on new rules would send “a terrible message” to the public. “Will those items perhaps need to be changed and modified and added to?” Hendren said “Certainly. But I think, given the fact that, since I’ve been here, three of my colleagues are going, or soon will be going, to prison — forming a committee’s not enough. We’ve got to start taking concrete action to right the ship.”
Clark was the only audible “No” vote in the chamber. After adjournment, he told reporters he wasn’t opposed to most of the content of the rules but objected to the idea of quickly passing a measure for its own sake.
“There’s some major changes here. Barely half of us are here. [There’s] no reason why we it had to move this quick, other than that we’re trying to show the public that we’re doing something … Sometimes that leads to bad unintended consequences,” Clark said.
“On top of that, I think that the serious stuff ought to be law,” he added. The rules approved Tuesday allow for the Senate to sanction a member for financial misconduct, which could include expulsion from the chamber, but anything further than that would require creating a new law. When it comes to performing official legislative duties for a client, he said, “there ought to be a legal penalty for that, not just being removed from the Senate, because that’s just wrong. … You ought to go to jail for it.” Clark pointed to failed ethics legislation sponsored by Republican Sens. Bryan King and Linda Collins-Smith in 2017 and said it should be brought back in 2019.