The so-called ethics reform legislation announced this morning by a bipartisan group of legislators is hitting the public record and, on first read, it is short on real meat. One of them, Sen. Will Bond’s bill, seems to provide new loopholes for legislators — with a built-in preference for incumbents — to live high on corporate cash.

Bond’s legislation would elevate to a felony personal use of campaign cash in excess of $2,500. That’s nice. The underfunded, understaffed Ethics Commission has only by chance done much enforcement of this rule in the past. Its biggest catch — Paul Bookout — resulted from a citizen-supplied road map. The feds also seem to have nabbed Jeremy Hutchinson, where the state gave him a pass.


But I’ve been reading the proposed exceptions to what constitutes personal spending of campaign money and I couldn’t help but wonder if former Sen. Jon Woods, master of past ethics loopholes, had sent in some ideas from his new home in federal prison.

Among the exceptions:


* Spending on campaign headquarters rented from a lawmaker.

* An apartment maintained as a residence during legislative sessions for out-of-town legislators. They already get per diem to cover housing costs and it isn’t taxed. Now they can live even larger and pocket more of the per diem by charging Little Rock rent to campaign carryover money.


* Food, travel and lodging to attend a national political convention.

* Costs of going to in-state or out-of-state conferences or seminars on general political issues. My emphasis supplied. Junket City!!!

*  Reimburse campaign staff and spouses when they attend conferences “related” to the campaign. Presumably getting schooled by Koch-heads on the finer points of tax cuts for the rich at a Hawaiian retreat could arguably be “related” to a campaign.

* Then there’s this catchall loophole. An expenditure is not prohibited if it is “In any way reasonably and legitimately related to campaign or officeholder activity.”  A discussion with lobbyists over drinks at the 1836 Club about the finer parts of nursing home reimbursements and medical equipment dealers would certainly be construed by your typical legislator as “reasonably” related to officeholder activity. Hell, the legislator could pick up a lobbyist’s tab.


And why not? If you’ve spent any time looking at legislative campaign finance reports, you know that they are driven these days by contributions from corporate and special interest PACs, all of which are fueled by corporate-related money. Incumbents with token or no opposition do particularly well with PACs and they usually have handsome carryover accounts (up to their legislative salary of more than $40,000). This bill lets legislators launder some back to the source, while covering their own tab, too.

I like Will Bond. He’s my senator. He fights many a good fight. But this looks like Trojan Horse legislation. The potential for stiffer penalties on occasion is a poor offset for loopholes to allow freer spending of corporate money.

I’ve asked him if I’m misreading this. I’ll provide an update when I hear from him.

UPDATE: Bond’s response:

“There were several bills filed today that were attempt to come to an agreement on a bipartisan ethics package. Significant felony penalties were included in the bill for taking campaign funds and / or carryover funds for personal use. This is a big change from current law. Many lawyers and folks were involved. If there are issues with the language creating loopholes that need to be closed, I will do my best to get it right or go down fighting. I will not be part of a bill that loosens any ethics laws. That is not the intent. The intent was to put felony punishments in place. I think some of the questions you have concern current law or rules and have been included in the bill. The bill is in no way an attempt to slip anything through or broaden anything. I do appreciate you raising the alarm, but I do wish you had given me a chance to explain as this bill is not just my work product. We will get it right without creating any new exceptions or loopholes and trying to tighten it up as best we can and still get the felony penalties put in place.

“I am also working on a draft that would prohibit a business involved in bribery or improper influence of a public official or state government official from doing business with the state for five years. We continue to work on dark money legislation and legislation that eliminates improper coordination between outside groups and candidates. “

PS: Bart Hester has some window -dressing PAC legislation. It would prohibit a PAC from giving to another PAC. It would not, however, prohibit the pernicious legislative “leadership” PACs that contribute to other legislators campaigns. He also would prohibit constitutional officers from forming more than one PAC. But this won’t stop special interest lobbyists from continuing a practice of forming multiple PACs, a way to dodge contribution limits to PACs. Nor does it count legislative caucuses as PACs.

I’ve yet to see a bill with long, sharp teeth. It looks mostly like window-dressing to me.