The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning that the state Ethics Commission Friday fined former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson $11,000 for violation of campaign finance laws, including spending the money for personal expenses. This illustrates the weakness, not the strength, of ethics regulation in Arkansas.
If you read through to the end of the article, you’ll see this action was the product of Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mike Lee, submitting to the Ethics Commission last year a copy of the federal indictment of Hutchinson on tax charges related to his misspending of campaign money. It was a bird’s nest on the ground, in other words. And it is a bird’s nest overlooked by Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, an avowed ethics crusader, who’s come up empty on that crusade to date, despite crooked legislators all around.
The violations were for 2016 on reports filed more than two years ago. Where was the Ethics Commission then? Nowhere, as is customary. Remember how Paul Bookout got away with spending tens of thousands of dollars year after year on personal expenses from campaign carryover, a practice stopped only after a local critic complained. The commission is too small and too underfunded and otherwise restricted to energetically search for miscreant public officials. It is mostly a reactive agency. There was a time it could respond only to signed, formal complaints, an action in-the-know whistleblowers were often reluctant to make for obvious reasons. As a practical matter, it still only responds to complaints and the occasional news media expose.
The Ethics Commission did investigate Hutchinson once previously on account of media exposure. It essentially in 2013 bought his dog-ate-the-homework excuses for a raft of ethical miscues, including personal spending of campaign accounts. In that episode, Hutchinson “self-reported” campaign problems — an artifice now written into state law to provide cover for unethical campaign filings. Claim you didn’t know better and you are generally forgiven. At that time, Hutchinson blamed misspending on his occasional girlfriend, Julie McGee (who once wielded a stuffed alligator against the senator in a domestic fracas), and even allowed finger-pointing at his former wife for campaign accounting, something she hotly disputed. Karma is a you-know-what. A computer and other help provided by McGee to the FBI led to federal charges against Hutchinson and perhaps contribute to the ongoing investigation of him for doing worse than buying a ring, gym membership and Netflix subscription from his surplus campaign money.
The Ethics Commission could do the people well by investigating the sources of $20,000 a month Hutchinson received as a legislator for “legal work” that appeared to be primarily serving in the legislature for the payee. The financial statements of other legislators provide clues for similar investigations. Nothing will