Columns » Ernest Dumas

Give ’til it hurts

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There is something about an Arkansas politician that does not want to be questioned too closely about ethics and the unending private perquisites of holding an elective office. The only way to explain it is that Arkansas historically paid its elected public officials less than did almost every state, and it was understood that if private interests wanted to relieve the poor taxpayers by directing a little payola to their public servants no taxpayer would be so chary as to object?

Few ever did, even when it was commonly known a century ago that the railroads wrote their own laws and regulations in Arkansas by doling out rail passes and occasionally outright bribes to lawmakers, governors and other state officials. In an amazing three days 50 years ago this winter, a utility was reputed to have passed out emoluments to lawmakers valued in the scores of thousands of dollars, from a case of Falstaff delivered to one representative’s room at the Capital Hotel to insurance and legal contracts. The legislators that week changed the rules for recovering natural gas costs. One representative claimed later that he did not fully realize what a good vote he had cast until the utility’s agent came around to his service station on Saturday morning with a contract to supply gasoline and diesel for the company’s fleet.

We have changed the state Constitution, and government pay, even for elected officials, is not so penurious anymore. But despite horrific scandals that are near to bringing down a national political party and many peccadilloes here at home, ethics is a hard subject for politicians.

Seth Blomeley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette made the candidates for governor answer a few questions Sunday, including what their personal policies would be on gifts if they are elected. All promise a high level of rectitude in their own offices, though none called for a comprehensive ban on gifts for public servants.

Mike Beebe came slightly closer by saying the state needed a stronger ethics law that would prohibit all gifts to officeholders greater than $100. The law already does that but it exempts gifts of that size as long as they are not intended to be rewards for the person doing his or her official job — a payoff, in other words. But such exceptions make ethics laws everywhere unworkable by requiring the establishment of a criminal intent by donors, who are invariably high-minded.

Asa Hutchinson, the Republican nominee, will not accept any gifts from lobbyists but he would consider it his duty to accept gifts from civic groups. You would think that Hutchinson, whose own high-mindedness has been put into question by his enrichment from stock deals that rest on influence peddling at his former federal offices, would be eager to establish his credentials as a hounds-tooth ethicist.

Rod Bryan, the independent candidate, said he would reject all gifts of any denomination except those that could be publicly useful, such as earthworms.

This need not be that tough an issue. One governor, Dale Bumpers, just banned gifts outright, though he found himself making exceptions for t-shirts, crocheted doilies and hand-carved animal heads.

He had only one threat on his life as a result. A member of the State Police Commission from a past administration wanted to be reappointed and sent a Rolex watch to the Governor’s Mansion with the price tag still affixed. Bumpers returned it with a form letter that explained his policy of not accepting gifts, and he did not reappoint the fellow. A new inmate at the state penitentiary told wardens a few months later that the ex-commissioner hired him to assassinate Bumpers but he got arrested before he could carry it out.

The rule cost Bumpers a few embarrassments. The mayor of a Northwest Arkansas city was offended that Bumpers refused the gift of a Stetson hat for a parade and he never forgot it.

That is why it is better to have a law than an office policy. It is easy to say no. Even Gov. Huckabee, who has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, would find it easy and maybe even satisfying to say “no” to manufacturers, distributors and people to whom it is important that the governor of the state is their personal friend or, better yet, indebted to them.

Part of the candidates’ reluctance is the need not to offend legislators, to whom small gifts — dinners, drinks, golf and hunting outings, travel and tickets to big sporting events — are the staff of public life. Every one of them, and the lobbyists and other interests that pay, swear that public policy cannot be bought for the price of a dinner or a martini. But honest ones will tell you that it is hard to betray even small kindnesses by voting against the central interests of those who pay for them. It tilts the playing field, sometimes dramatically and in other cases ever so slightly, for the interests that have the wherewithal to do it.

Some public-spirited group ought to craft an initiated act to level the field once and for all and ban gifts. The people would get fairer laws, and elected officials could bask in the piety that they often claim.

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