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Ethics complaint fails to gain traction in Senate

by Michael R. Wickline | November 7, 2020 at 4:01 a.m.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, is shown in this 2016 file photo.

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, told the Senate on Friday that he was filing a complaint with that body's Ethics Committee alleging that President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, violated the code of ethics.

But the Senate later approved a motion by Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, to dismiss Garner's complaint as frivolous. A few senators dissented.

Garner's complaint is linked to a federal judge's ruling in April that ordered Hendren's plastic company and a drug rehabilitation program to pay $1.1 million to workers who went unpaid.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks ordered Hendren Plastics and the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program to pay back-wages and damages to 172 workers who volunteered for the program. According to Brooks, the defendants, for their own financial benefit, deployed individuals who, at one time, faced criminal charges related to substance abuse and then enrolled in the program.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

After that ruling in April, Hendren said he planned to appeal. He tweeted that "the implication that [Hendren Plastics] sought this out for cheap labor is completely false."

He said he had consulted with drug-court judges, who assured him it was not only legal, but essential that Hendren and other companies participate with recovery programs to give nonviolent offenders an alternative to prison.

Garner disclosed the complaint during senators' organizational session in advance of the regular session that starts Jan. 11.

Earlier in Friday's meeting, the Senate approved, by a 28-to-3 vote, Hendren's proposed ethics rule that bars senators and their relatives from conducting meetings in Senate offices or facilities when the meetings involve state or federal dollars and "involves impacting, coercing, soliciting, or activities of influence that could potentially result in private or professional gain or profit."

Garner said he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate what he alleged is Hendren's ethics code violation.

He said Hendren, as president of Hendren Plastics, "violated state minimum wage law for financial gain by manipulating the labor market and skirting compliance with the law."

Garner said there were other allegations against Hendren in his complaint that he would provide to the committee and Senate.

But Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said, "I have been here a long time and this is the first time this has ever happened in my knowledge in the House and Senate.

"This is something that should never have been allowed," Bledsoe said. "We have vilified one of our members, without giving him a chance to explain or anything and, of course, this is public and I am sure it will make the news and it's unfair and it's unethical and it's very disturbing.

"The situation was the judge in Benton County, who has one of the most successful drug courts, asked Sen. Hendren to take these people that are in these drug courts and teach these young men and young women how to work and to give them a chance, so that when they do get through with drug court ... they have a resume," she said. "They can say, 'I worked for Sen. Hendren, I worked at Hendren Plastics and I have a work record.'"

Garner said he disclosed his complaint to the Senate rather "having it released on a public website and other means" because he wants to be fair and transparent to the people of Arkansas.

"Discussing the merits of the case, I did not do," he said. "I listed the charges and the accusations within the complaint and I will not litigate it in this forum. It is not the proper forum. Per our Senate rules, the proper forum is the Ethics Committee."

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he serves on the Senate Ethics Committee, and "to my knowledge we have heard nothing about this.

Rapert said he felt "a bit ambushed as a member of the Ethics Committee," which had not discussed the matter or seen a complaint.

Hendren later told senators that he's appealing the judge's ruling because it affects all rehabilitation programs across the nation. Several other companies have been sued for the same thing, he said.

He said he's not going to relitigate the case before the state Senate because it's been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

"I feel confident that justice will prevail," he said.

"I have seen the impact that this program has has and I still believe helping those kids is better than locking them up," said Hendren. "There have been allegations made that we profited from this. Absolutely not true. Every hour that was worked was paid more than minimum wage, including overtime hours. That is an undisputed fact.

"My intention here was to help kids get a second chance," he said. "I don't apologize for that and regardless of how this lawsuit turns out and regardless of how this nonsense that we are doing today turns out, I am not going to apologize because I felt like I was doing the right thing."

In presenting his proposed rule change, Hendren said his priority two years ago "was to try change what I call the culture of corruption and to restore the ethics to an unquestioned level" in the Senate.

The Senate at that time overhauled its ethics rules and created an ethics committee.

"But we have here is a situation that has kind of come up a couple different times and I felt needed some additional clarification to the rule," he said.

He said his proposed rule change still allows senators to use their office for official business of the Senate in their official capacities.

Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, said he's "appalled that we need this" proposed rule, and he thanked Hendren for proposing the rule change.

"At some level, this is as bad as it gets," Pitsch said. "Using the Capitol grounds and the Capitol office for personal gain is just beside me."

But Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, said he opposes the change because while the intent is generally good, he thought it was poorly crafted.

"To be candid, Sen. Hendren has spoken to me verbally and through correspondence his concerns about some issues that related to me, and I made it very clear that neither I nor any member of my family or anyone gave up their First Amendment rights to petition their government or anybody else that's my constituent gave those rights up when I became elected to the Senate," he said.

"I certainly am very proud of the fact that in one instance, that he seemed to disagree with my actions, had to do when I worked with a House member and his spouse was also interested in that to try to gain funding to help pay for the expenses of minority students who were wanting to go back and teach in the Delta, and frankly just didn't have the cash money to go pay for all the certifications that we now require of new teachers in the state of Arkansas," Johnson said.

He said he was called on the carpet about that because he went to a state agency "and in a peripheral sort of way, certainly not directly, there might have been some benefit in there."

Johnson said he agrees with Hendren that senators shouldn't use Senate facilities and staff that "affects our business or any other thing that puts money in our pockets.

"But things that are on the fringe of that, you get into some very dangerous territory when you start saying you can't help a constituent or you can't help young people get certified and get that money paid so they can go back to Marianna or Barton Lexa or somewhere like that and teach because, Lord knows, we have enough trouble trying to get people there," he said.

Hendren said his proposed rule change has nothing to do with stopping senators from serving their constituents.

"Where it becomes a problem is when it has something to do with my checkbook or my family's checkbook personally or professionally."

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