Sen. Jim Hendren, the new leader of the Arkansas Senate, commanded a swath of newsprint in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning for his opening speech exhorting an end to the era of “greed and corruption” in the Arkansas legislature. A few thoughts about that, with more to come as events warrant.
* Some people are slow learners. Yesterday I caught Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, the state’s chief legal officer, with plans to host a cocktail party at the Capital Hotel paid for by a PAC started by her father. PACs can’t pay for a politician’s party. She’s now going to use her own carryover campaign money (heavily dependent on special interest contributions) to cover expenses. Arkansas politicians HATE picking up checks.
* The self-dealing of Arkansas legislators was no secret, though actual bribery might not have been widely known. To name one example, everyone knew Jim Hendren’s cousin, Jeremy Hutchinson (now facing federal felony charges) was working on the floor of the Senate in behalf of legislation that helped his paying legal clients. Did anybody in the legislature ever call him out on it, over years of such practice?
Jim Hendren also has confessed to once being offered a bribe by Jon Woods to get out of a legislative race. He didn’t take it, but he also declined to wear a wire in a federal law enforcement investigation of the incident. You’d think some of that past might have found its way into the fulsomely covered speech he gave yesterday.
* House Speaker Matthew Shepherd has, as yet, done less than Hendren in instituting additional ethics rules for House members. His speech did acknowledge that members of the legislature sometimes let their positions go to their heads. Do tell.
* Senate rule changes are nice, but the state needs stronger ethics LAWS enforced by an independent agency, not by a House or Senate committee made up of people who depend on each other for votes. Existing rules required pre-vote disclosures of potential conflicts, but those rules were often ignored.
* We should require by law more detailed reporting of income. We should require more detailed reporting of when lawmakers vote on issues involving people and businesses from whom they realize income. We’d know for sure then, for example, if stories are true about legislators lined up as commissioned salesmen for a company that sells items to a major industry that depends on state Medicaid money for rich profits. We’d know more about the sources of income for the “consulting companies” that have become popular among legislators. We’d know more about legal “retainer” fees.
* We need meaningful penalties for ethics violations. We should do away with Jon Woods’ mulligan rule that forgives ethical reporting violations by legislators if they correct them. Impose meaningful penalties. A $100 fine deters nothing.
* We should end carryover campaign slush funds for incumbent legislators.
* We should end the exceptions engineered by Jon Woods that allowed continued wining and dining of legislators by lobbyists.
* We need more specific reporting from lobbyists on who they meet with and how they spend their money. This and other reporting should be readily accessible online. The secretary of state’s current website is not working well.
* The above is only a start. Plus, rules and regulations inevitably will fall to human nature. Hendren is right. There are many good and decent members of the Arkansas legislature working in the public interest. But a spate of indictments hasn’t rooted out all the crooks. They will always be with us as they are in every corner of society.
Moreover, the influence of money, even when wielded legally, is powerful — too powerful in this poor state. It is a rare incumbent legislator whose campaign isn’t powered wholly by corporate money, theoretically outlawed by constitutional amendment but now simply laundered through PACs.
At the legislature money talks loudly, whether it is Walton billions behind education legislation; nursing home money in the spending of Medicaid money; cable TV and telephone money in controlling Internet access; the Chamber of Commerce lobby in restricting the rights of working people while protecting corporate profits; the private prison industry in pushing for privatization; and on and on.
I second Jim Hendren laudable call for a clean legislature. But corruption has many forms, not all of them illegal or deterred by rules. So vigilance is required. These days, the Internet-decimated press is weaker than ever in serving as a monitor. Everyday citizens must get involved, too.
Also: keep an eye on appointments by people like Hendren to the likes of agencies like the Ethics Commission, the commission that sets legislators’ pay and the Medical Marijuana Commission. You may know the leadership by appointments such as these.
And speaking of entertaining, the freebies have begun.
TODAY: The Jonesboro chamber of commerce and Arkansas State University will be pouring from 4 to 6 p.m. today at ASU offices across from the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin will be spending some of his abundant campaign cash to serve drinks at the Capital Hotel in advance of the governor’s inaugural soiree at the Statehouse Convention Center.