Columns » Max Brantley

Ethics, schmethics

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Time for a periodic rant on Arkansas's ethical blindness.The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dug up some useful illustrations recently.

By combing reports (not always easy in Arkansas; public officials don't like to make public records searches easy), the newspaper found that the state's chief of information services and hard drive-crushing, Claire Bailey, has been entertained frequently by AT&T, which does millions in business with the state each year.

She's been to the World Series, other baseball games, a Razorback game and an Aretha Franklin concert courtesy of the phone company, which also provided hotel rooms. The phone company argues that such gifts are legal because Bailey had a long-standing business and personal relationship with AT&T officials that predated state employment. I guess her boyfriend and son, also beneficiaries of the freebies, got grandmothered in under Bailey's pre-existing condition. But if these are friends, not business associates, why is AT&T picking up the tab?

Then there's Pork King Bob Johnson of Bigelow, who tried mightily to find a way to divert more than $60,000 in excess Senate campaign cash to personal uses, such as a Baptist church back home. The law is crystal clear that you can't do that, but that didn't stop Johnson from trying. Nor did it stop him from complaining to the newspaper, as the reporter put it, that it's difficult to “disburse the money in the way that he prefers.”

Shameless grabs of gifts and campaign cash (it's unbelievable that incumbents get to capture a windfall equal to a year's pay after each election) show how public service is often about personal interest. It's further illustrated every time there's the ritual smackdown of an idealistic soul who tries to stiffen Arkansas ethics laws (this year, the reform effort was trashed by Johnson and his Brotherhood in the Senate).

Congress — held in near universal disrepute — is a beacon for Arkansas. Last week, President Bush signed legislation that significantly stiffens ethics rules in Washington.

The Campaign Legal Center has an 11-page document on-line highlighting how this bill developed and the numerous improvements it has made to the law.

More filing — on searchable, on-line databases — is now required of lobbyists on expenditures and campaign contributions. Lobbyists also must disclose their previous public employment.

There's a two-year cooling off period before a lawmaker or senior staff can become a lobbyist. Negotiations for these jobs must be disclosed by members and, in the Senate, can't occur until after a new senator has been elected to replace the lobbyist wannabe. The legislation bans gifts to members of Congress and staff from lobbyists and interests that employ lobbyists. The law also ends most free travel junkets and, when congressmen fly, they now must pay regular charter rates — no sweetheart deals for corporate jets. Congressmen who commit crimes in office lose their pensions.

The legislation also cleaned up the secret earmark scam, in which late-arriving pork projects could be anonymously added to spending bills. Arkansas, at least, already had a more open, if no less odious, tradition of pork barreling.

It seems so simple. Arkansas should outlaw gifts and entertainment for public officials from people with interest in legislation, stiffen lobbyist reporting and significantly stiffen fines for violations. Arkansas also should end the retreats where lobbyists gather like flies to swarm legislators looking for free hospitality. Let the lawmakers retreat, but tell the lobbyists to stay away, as Congress has now done.

I can dream, can't I?

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