Readers of this space know of our suspicion of Sen. Jon Woods,
the Springdale Republican who has no discernible means of support outside the legislature, where he's made a living on the ethical margins.
It was Woods who breathed life into a so-called ethics amendment in 2013 that has now produced a 150 percent pay raise for legislators; a shot at 18 years in the Senate (with the accompanying much greater retirement benefits) for people like Woods, and a continued free hog slopping of legislators by lobbyists despite the nominal prohibition on gifts in the "ethics" amendment that Woods championed.
Now ethics champion Woods is back, already amending the voter-approved "ethics" amendment with pages and pages of legalese that will get scant attention
as the legislature rushes to a close.
Again, what Woods proposes masquerades as good government. Again, I suspect it amounts to a hoodwinking of voters The legislature seems likely to shortly approve:
* CHEATING MEANS ONLY HAVING TO SAY YOUR'E SORRY
: The most obvious stinker in the little amendment to ethics law by Woods is a get-out-of-jail-free card for public officials caught taking illegal gifts. If you're caught taking an illegal gift, if you merely repay the gift within in 30 days of "learning" of an alleged violation, there is no investigation, no foul, no blemish on your record. This is styled as protection for the innocent. It is nothing but protection for the guilty, fearful that a waiter might report somebody for taking some fancy wine and steak from a lobbyist. Get caught, admit it, pay the money back and you are innocent. Don't get caught? Nobody is the wiser. How hard is it really, simply to accept NO gifts? No misunderstanding is possible if you follow the Walmart rule.
* A LITTLE GRAFT IS OK:
Nominal rules have been proposed by Woods for the unlimited swillathons that lobbyists have continued this legislative session. But big whoop. Only a 24-hour e-mail notice to legislators (not the public), qualifies a "planned event" for exemption from the no-gift rule. Oh, and lobbyists are limited to one swillathon a week. But there are plenty of other lobbyists to pick up the slack on a handoff on similar issues.
There's undoubtedly more in the voluminous amendment Woods has added to his shell bill for pushing through the 11th-hour of the legislature. Experience tells us it will be good for legislators and lobbyists, not for voters. A quick perusal leads me to these conclusions of the language:
*EVERYBODY GETS FREEBIES
: Woods seems to expand the freebie rule from a governmental body to persons not actually elected to the invited body.
*THERE IS A FREE LUNCH:
Woods reinstitutes the lobbyist-paid working lunch by exempting meals provided to legislators on days they are receiving per diem (in theory, tax-free reimbursement for meal expenses). Hard days, you know. It's nice when a lobbyist can truck in a lunch to the Capitol for a meeting in which they have a high interest.
The amendment spends a great deal of time making it clear that legislators can take freebies for trips to regional and national conferences. And freebies from events "coordinated" with such events. Lobbyist dinners, in other words.
*NEPOTISM IS COOL
: The amendment takes pains to clear any payments to spouses and relatives for state employment. That would not be considered an improper emolument Anyone who'd suggest that a spousal job at the legislature "arises" from a legislator's elected job would just be a sorehead crank.
*CONNECTIONS ARE COOL:
If a legislator gets a fat position on a board of some organization, it's cool. He need only assure us that the sweet gig has nothing to do with the fact that he is a legislator. Of course not.
*CAMPAIGNING AT CAPITOL OK:
Yes, sure, you can park your truck with campaign decals in a prime taxpayer provided spot in front of the Capitol where lots of people will see it. Mr. Ethics Woods will place some limits on the size of those decals, however.
*CRIME DOESN'T COST MUCH:
Woods provides a whopping $150 fine for violations of his law.
Woods raises the limit on campaign contributions from $2,000 to $2,700, with an escalator clause.
*CAMPAIGN LIE MULLIGANS:
This one's sweet. Make a "mistake" on a campaign report and you have 30 days to correct it without fear of fault finding by the "ethics" commission. In other words, lie your ass off in the critical last-minute filing before an election and then correct your "mistakes" after the election. No foul.
There is something wrong with ethics regulation in Arkansas when the Ethics Commission lets Jon Woods decide how the ethics law should read. There is something wrong with a legislature that will rubber-stamp Jon Woods' work. But they owe him plenty — their 150 percent pay raise, the looser term limits and the steaks and martinis that keep on rolling on the lobbyist tab.
We have the best legislature money can buy. Walmart can appreciate — indeed understands from experience — how little is required.
It is no coincidence that a 19-page amendment full of questions about public ethics gets dropped in the waning hours of a legislative session. It is meant to forestall examination and debate. It is meant to continue the corrupt status quo to the greatest extent possible. It is done with the full approval of leadership, from the governor on down. And, in the absence of a voice for better government, it will be done.
CORRECTION: I noted that a section repealed the limit on political party contributions. But I overlooked that parties were included in another section of the amendment. BUT: That section specifies the legality of contributions from legislative caucuses, which traditionally exist on the generosity of corporate contributors. It's a way around the corporate contribution ban.