Columns » Max Brantley

Could we agree on ethics?


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Two separate Arkansas legislators have spoken to me in recent days about their interest in pushing public ethics legislation.

They were Democrats, but Republicans have not been totally AWOL on ethical matters. This could be an occasion to leave party dogma behind in a bipartisan push for a common good. Unless, that is, the new Republican majority is too anxious to cash in on the perks of majority and incumbency.

Sen. Bruce Maloch, for example, tells me he definitely will introduce legislation to close the gaping loophole created by the state Ethics Commission in a law that was intended to prohibit use of campaign contributions to make contributions to other candidates. It's a transparent way for fatcat donors to exceed gift limits by giving to one candidate and then giving the maximum to an unopposed incumbent who promptly turns around and maxes out to a candidate in need. Both parties, but particularly Republicans this year, have refined the practice. A group of legislators meet for lunch and declare the sitdown a "ticketed event." They sell tickets to the legislators who attend and fork over campaign cash to another campaign. The sleazy practice should be stopped.

Maloch, too, is interested in curbing abuse of corporate contributions. In this, a single person with multiple corporate entities can give multiple contributions in the name of each corporate entity. Jim Lindsey, the wealthy real estate developer, is adept at the practice.

Lindsey, in fact, reminds me of a place where campaign finance reform is really in need — the local level. Ideally, Arkansas would do as Montana has done, outlaw all direct corporate contributions to political campaigns. Not to worry about corporations. The U.S. Supreme Court has conferred "personhood" on corporations for purposes of making unlimited financial speech in independent ways.

But a little corporate money can go a long way. For $10,000, you can decide the outcome of many a state legislative race. It's even more valuable at the local level.

See the influence of corporate money on the Little Rock Board of Directors, where seven are elected by wards and three at-large. The at-large seats, with a bigger voting audience, are inevitably won by the richer candidates and the richer candidates inevitably enjoy business establishment support. They carry the balance of power on the board. At-large incumbents Dean Kumpuris, Gene Fortson and Joan Adcock all heavily outspent opposition in wins this year.

Fortson squeaked by, picking up only 47 percent of the vote, despite outspending runnerup Willard Proctor, with 39 percent, about $95,000 to $5,000. How did Fortson get his money? Tapping a blue ribbon list of some of the best-known names in corporate Little Rock. And direct corporate money.

Fortson got $7,000 from industrialist Thomas Schueck and his son, including $3,000 from a Schueck farm and Schueck management corporation. Fortson got $11,000, in 11 separate contributions, from real estate LLCs that are part of the aforementioned Jim Lindsey's real estate empire. Lindsey and Schueck money alone outspent Proctor more than 3-1.

Fortson picked up more than 60 other contributions of about $19,000 in sum from corporations. Add more than $6,000 in PAC money and Fortson's haul from non-individuals was more than 40 percent of his take. Even without corporate money, Fortson would be a lot more likely to vote with the neighborhoods around the country clubs from which his private support flowed than low-income neighborhoods targeted for demolition by the Chamber of Commerce-driven (and taxpayer-funded) movement to build that tech park.

The tale of the finance reports make a case for both cleanup of ethics laws and the end of at-large election of city directors.


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