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Measures target lobbyist lending, judicial bribery

Democrat cites recent cases by Brian Fanney | November 19, 2016 at 3:37 a.m.

Democrats continued filing proposals for transparency and ethics laws Friday, including bills that would ban loans by lobbyists to lawmakers and a Senate version of a bill to allow victims of bribed judges to pursue civil lawsuits under state law.

Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis. They follow incidents involving lobbyist loans and purported judicial bribery over the past two years.

"I would hope this would have broad support," he said. This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. This is a good government issue. People have to have faith and confidence that their public officials are not for sale." Republicans hold a majority of both houses of the Legislature.

Senate Bill 7 was proposed after a 2015 incident in which the lobbying firm founded by former state Rep. Bruce Hawkins lent $30,000 to Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Jake Files, R-Fort Smith.

Ingram said the bill was "in no way, shape or form" aimed at Files, but many lawmakers had assumed the transaction would have been outlawed under state ethics laws.

"I have too much respect for Jake. I consider him a friend," he said. "It's just like everything in life. You rock along and these ethics matters evolve."

Hawkins' lobbying firm -- DBH Management Consultants -- disclosed the loan to the Republican lawmaker in lobbying reports filed with the secretary of state's office.

In a previous interview, Files, a real estate developer and contractor, said his J3 Partners construction company needed a loan. He received several suggestions of people to call, including Hawkins.

Ingram's bill specifies that advances or loans do not include those made "in the ordinary course of business" by a financial institution or a business that regularly extends credit.

Senate Bill 6 would create an exception to judicial immunity by allowing individuals, corporations and other entities who have had "an adverse decision against him or her in a court in this state" to file a claim in circuit court if the judge made or influenced the adverse decision as a result of bribery.

Those adversely affected would be allowed to recover costs, damages, including unlimited punitive damages, and attorney fees.

The judge would have to be found guilty of bribery in a court of law or disciplined by the Arkansas Supreme Court or the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission for conduct constituting bribery.

That bill was inspired by former Circuit Judge Michael Maggio, Ingram said.

In January 2015, Maggio pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge and has since been sentenced to prison. Earlier this year, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea. His case is on appeal.

Rosey Perkins and Rhonda Coppack, daughters of the late Martha Bull of Perryville, filed a lawsuit against Michael Morton, a nursing-home operator, and former Sen. Gilbert Baker, a lobbyist and political fundraiser. The sisters' lawsuit said the men conspired to bribe Maggio to lower a Faulkner County jury's $5.2 million judgment to $1 million in an earlier negligence lawsuit over Bull's death in 2008.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I was stunned that this family had no recourse. A sitting judge has admitted to taking a bribe and he reduced the judgment by roughly $4 million," Ingram said. "I think that somebody has to be a responsible party and you ought to be able to file a civil suit against that judge."

The broader package of Democratic bills include measures to curtail anonymous political advertising, ban political action committees from contributing to candidates and prohibit elected officials from registering as lobbyists.

Republicans also have begun filing bills. Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, is proposing a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of days the General Assembly is in session and to abolish the fiscal session that occurs in even-numbered years. Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, filed a bill that would expand the definition of Internet stalking of a child.

The bills will be considered during the regular legislative session starting Jan. 9.

Metro on 11/19/2016

Print Headline: Measures target lobbyist lending, judicial bribery

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