Columns » Max Brantley

Throw the bums in the legislature out

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Jon Woods, the former state senator, got a whopping 18-year federal prison sentence last week from Judge Timothy Brooks, who described Woods' criminality as "grotesque" and "depraved."

They are words suitable for a legislative culture that he encouraged and which argues persuasively for term limits.

So far, Woods, Micah Neal, Jake Files, Eddie Cooper, Hank Wilkins, Mickey Gates and Jeremy Hutchinson have been accused or convicted of recent crimes. But felonious corruption is only part of the story.

Nearly every Republican legislator in Northwest Arkansas pumped money into the criminal enterprise known as Ecclesia College. One of them, Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), also sent money to a preacher pal from the unconstitutional General Improvement Fund handouts and his only regret seemed to be that he hadn't sent more.

Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs), the governor's nephew and Jeremy Hutchinson's cousin, became an ethics crusader this year — after indictments started. But it turns out he'd gotten a bribe offer from Woods in 2012 and declined to cooperate with the FBI on snaring Woods. He spent four years working with him on big issues without a peep about the crook, guest of honor at a campaign fundraiser featuring Uncle Asa shortly before Woods abruptly withdrew from the race, expecting an indictment.

Big issues? Under the guise of "ethics reform," Woods engineered a constitutional amendment that has all but tripled legislative pay and extended the time they may serve in office. He also helped work out a mulligan system for ethics violations and protected a fat pay supplement through untaxed per diem. This has created a class of legislators, like Woods, who have no visible means of support outside of signing the attendance sheet for interim committee meetings.

If that's not enough money, another legislator described to the FBI how Woods had counseled him on creating a bogus job as paid "consultant" to nonprofit agencies that depend on state funding.

Jeremy Hutchinson and former Senate President Michael Lamoureux provide the template. They landed consultant and legal fees from private business, special interest lobbies and agencies that draw from the multibillion-dollar Medicaid budget.

There are other ways to make friends. Jake Files' proposal to limit lawsuits against nursing homes couldn't have hurt him in receiving an $80,000 advance from a nursing home executive. Bob Ballinger sent money to Ecclesia, which then hired him to do legal work on land deals financed with money he sent the college.

No telling how many lucrative favors Rusty Cranford, lobbyist and health company executive, passed out to legislators on his way to a multicount federal indictment. Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), for example, was paid a fee by one of Cranford's employers to deliver a talk on diversity. It was duly reported as income by Chesterfield. But really. Is it a good idea, even if legal, for a company receiving Medicaid money to hire legislators for speech-making?

So much rot and so little space. After the Arkansas Supreme Court outlawed use of tax money to pay private chambers of commerce, Jon Woods worked up an amendment to legalize the payments. That money subsidizes salaries of people who favor lawsuit limits, low pay, poor unemployment and workers comp benefits and miserly health care. It should be no surprise that they don't want term limits to shorten the tenure of experienced public servants like Jon Woods.

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