The state Senate will meet this afternoon for a business session to swear in two special-election winners.
While conveniently gathered, senators will consider proposed new ethics rules that probably amount to the best that could be hoped for among colleagues, cousins or otherwise.
Sen. Jim Hendren, incoming president pro tempore of the Senate, was the driving force for the new rules. He put the legislative staff to work on them well before his cousin, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock, like Hendren a nephew of the governor, emerged as the poster boy for problematic senatorial behavior inviting better rules.
A federal plea arrangement filed two weeks ago in federal court in Springfield, Mo., revealed allegations from guilty-pleading lobbyist Rusty Cranford that Hutchinson had taken $500,000 in bribes over several years. Hutchinson, a lawyer, explained that he was paid legal retainers--not bribes--by Cranford and nonprofit organizations that Cranford represented.
Over the years of Hutchinson's retainment, those Cranford-related organizations received hundreds of millions of dollars in legislatively appropriated Medicaid reimbursements for behavioral health services.
So, by the very best version of events, Hutchinson used his legislative membership to hire himself out for a nice multi-year private income through an active lobbyist representing myriad agencies reaping tens of millions a year in legislatively appropriated dollars. In so doing, he broke no law or rule because there is no law or rule preventing a lawyer serving in the part-time Legislature from taking on conflict-posing clients in his private practice.
The key newly proposed rule, then, is the one saying that a senator may not accept "other employment or compensation that could reasonably be expected to impair his or her independent judgment in the performance of his or her official duties."
Presumably, it would work this way: A young lawyer at a firm with a retainer from, say, Entergy who got elected to the Senate could keep that retainer, but would disclose it every time a bill affecting Entergy came up. But he couldn't, after being sworn in, sign a retainer contract offered in the Capitol corridor by a lobbyist for, say, AT&T.
Well, he could do that, but he'd have to disclose it, and a colleague could bring an ethics complaint against him by which the accused would face sanction.
Hendren won't even say that Hutchinson's situation would have fallen under the new rule had it been in effect at the time.
He says Hutchinson is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. And that's not merely a cousin's view. Sen. Kent Ingram, a Democrat, joined Hendren in that pronouncement at a news conference last week.
What they say is true--and of paramount importance--in the context of criminality, which has not been charged. But the point is a do-right rule for senators. Being ethical in a position of public trust is more than avoiding, or awaiting, indictment.
One of the Cranford-related nonprofits--the main recipient of Medicaid reimbursements, Preferred Family Healthcare--is now suing Hutchinson, seeking recompense for most of that $500,000. It argues it lost a back-pay lawsuit when Hutchinson, as its lawyer, didn't show up for scheduled proceedings or keep the nonprofit informed.
Hutchinson's lawyer, Tim Dudley, scoffs. He wants Cranford and his associates to make up their minds: Did they bribe Hutchinson, or did they retain him for work they now allege to be substandard?
It's all very confusing, except it isn't. The relevant question for federal investigators is whether Hutchinson's job was to do some lawyering for his bosses and do some legislating for them as well.
The proposed new rules would permit any senator to raise an ethics accusation against a fellow senator by informing that fellow senator and formally filing the complaint with a new ethics committee. The Senate intends to appoint three Republicans--Missy Irvin, David Wallace and Ten Commandments-wielding Jason Rapert--and two Democrats--Will Bond and Bruce Maloch--to that committee. Irvin, I'm told, is the likely chairman.
The committee's first job will be to set a procedure for all these potentially cumbersome new disclosures.
This ethics-review process will require a non-collegial senator with enough nerve to accuse a fellow senator. The two nerviest and most non-collegial senators--Bryan King and Linda Collins-Smith--got beat in the recent primary, which goes to show what being non-collegial and nervy will get you.
I should mention there is the chance today that the Senate won't pass these rules. They'll need 24 votes for two-thirds to suspend the rules for consideration. So, the first thing needed will be for 24 of the 35 senators to show up for a special business meeting.
Meantime, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's position is that he loves his nephews, both the one advancing solid new rules for the Senate and the one who might have broken what wasn't yet a rule.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 06/19/2018
Print Headline: New do-right rule possible