Columns » Max Brantley

Talking ethics

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A state Senate committee this week began firming up new ethics rules to govern members. Call me wary.

First, lawyers, a handy whipping boy, are targets. The committee favored disclosure of specific payments by lobbyists or a company that employs a lobbyist to a law firm. It would be required whether the payment was for a senator's work or not and regardless of any pre-existing business relationship between client and firm.

Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock), a lawyer, said he had no problem with disclosing clients and even payments in general ranges. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he added:

"But if you are going to have them disclose to the penny what they were paid in the prior year for legal service unrelated to governmental affairs, you are knocking out a group of possible people who could serve in the Legislature, and which may be the intent. I get it. That's what I feel like the intent is."

The disclosure rule would take aim, fairly, at the long-rumored practice of powerful lobbies paying retainers to key legislator-lawyers.

But this concern has lingered for decades. What's worse, today's ethics crusaders sat silently for years as the likes of Michael Lamoureux and Jeremy Hutchinson — Governor Hutchinson's nephew and cousin of newborn ethics champion Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) — openly pursued legislative agendas for paying clients from a telephone company and tort reform lobby (Lamoureux) to a slot machine manufacturer and a mattress peddler (Jeremy Hutchinson).

Sens. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) and Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) spoke for getting tough on lawyers. OK. But Dismang is an accountant. Should he disclose his firm's clients and the specific amounts they pay for services if they have business with the legislature? Irvin's husband is a doctor. Should she disclose specific payments from the government-financed Medicaid or Medicare programs or reveal details of arrangements, if any, with hospitals, medical clinics or insurance companies?

The new financial disclosure will also apply to senators who set themselves up as consultants. Good. This was a ruse some set up to reap money from friends of the legislature. But it was no secret.

Corruption has been an everyday occurrence. Former Sen. Jon Woods reportedly once offered a bribe to Hendren. Hendren said he didn't take it, but he also refused to help the FBI sting Woods. Woods would serve four more years alongside Hendren, reaping kickbacks from unconstitutional pork barrel distributions. Nobody in the Senate made a peep. They were gorging on pork, too.

But this is the main flaw in this public relations exercise:

The proposed rule allows complaints only by other senators — who depend on their colleagues for votes on matters large and small every single day — or by Senate staff, whose jobs and pay raises depend on the senators. An ethics rule that doesn't consider all complaints isn't much of a rule, particularly when it will be judged by other senators.

Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) said he worried about frivolous complaints should the process be open to all. No wonder. He's raised money for his personal ministry and for a putative nonprofit to erect a Christian monument on the Capitol lawn, all without disclosing specific sources or expenses. Consider: Might a lobbyist arrange a counseling session with Rapert at his prayer ranch thinking more than God's grace would result?

Rapert, who's being sued for blocking people on social media, has accepted taxpayer-paid legal defense though he claims he's acting as a private citizen in his censorship. You think a senator or staff member might file an ethics complaint about THAT?

In short, history says to hold low expectations for legislative ethics. Hendren not only suffered Woods as a colleague for years, he didn't even discourage his Uncle Asa from headlining a campaign fundraiser for the alleged briber in 2016. Hendren also loaned money once to another senator who had the shorts despite his public thievery. Confidence-inspiring it's not.

But kill the lawyers, by all means.

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