Columns » Max Brantley

A word about ethics



If the Arkansas legislature won't fix this small matter, it's not likely to do anything about public ethics at all.

I've written before about how the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce cooked up a campaign to pass a city sales tax designed in part to direct money to a pet chamber project to build a tech park. Their committee operated largely in secret. Its only reported expenditures of any consequence were to a private political consulting firm, the Markham Group. How the consultants spent the money on the campaign remained secret.

I filed an ethics complaint. I contended the law required the committee to report specifically how its money was spent, just as political candidates must do. The state Ethics Commission staff agreed and recommended the committee be found to have violated the law. The chamber hired a high-dollar law firm that convinced the Ethics Commission that a quirk in legislative drafting hadn't made that disclosure requirement clear enough. No violation was found.

But ... the Ethics Commission said it would ask the legislature to amend the law so that the original intent for disclosure was clearly stated. Voters deserve to know how money is spent on ballot initiatives. Republican Rep. Jane English said she'd push to pass the law if elected to the state Senate. She was.

So far, no bill has been introduced. Graham Sloan, director of the Ethics Commission, said private consulting firms were fighting the law change. They like to operate in secret. Take Craig Douglass, for example. He's spent more than $1.5 million working to put a sales tax on the people of Arkansas to build highways. Until recently, about the only thing the committee disclosed was payments to Douglass. More recently, he's broken out some spending in broad, categorical ways (advertising, polling) but nothing by way of specifics.

Senator English is a powerful part of the Republican Party majority. What members of its caucus want, they get. So then: Do Republicans believe in open government or not? Do Senator English's campaign promises mean anything or not? If you can't pass a simple little piece of elemental disclosure like this — something not nearly so broad as federal disclosure laws — do you really believe Republicans when they claim to support Regnat Populus ethics reforms for legislators which would limit lobbyist freebies and corporate financial influence in elections?

Here's a new wrinkle, though in telling the Ethics Commission about opposition from the campaign consultants last week, Sloan prepared a memo about the current state of the law. I got a copy under the Freedom of Information Act (thankfully still in force). It suggests the law might ALREADY require disclosure of specific expenditures by campaign consultants, if not by ballot committees. Maybe I filed the complaint against the wrong agency — the chamber's campaign committee rather than the campaign consultants themselves. Here's why:

Under state law, expenditures by any "person" to pass or defeat a ballot question must be disclosed. And, under statute, a person " means any individual, business, proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, syndicate, business trust, labor organization, company, corporation, association, committee, or any other organization or group of persons acting in concert."

Perhaps if the law isn't changed more in favor of what was intended all along, I can get Craig Douglass, the Markham Group and others up for their own day before the Ethics Commission.

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