The Arkansas Senate Ethics Committee on Wednesday convened in a closed-door executive session for more than five hours to consider evidence after two ethics complaints were filed against state senators last week.
After the end of the committee's executive session, committee Chairman Kim Hammer, R-Benton, announced that the committee concluded its business for the day and would reconvene at 9 a.m. today in the state Capitol.
"We are on the first hearing and because it is ongoing, that's all I can say," Hammer said afterward when asked whether the committee held one hearing on one complaint or two hearings on two separate complaints Wednesday.
He declined to disclose who filed the complaints, whom the complaints are filed against, and the nature of the complaints.
"The committee is doing its job, and at this time I'm not at liberty to comment on what was discussed in executive session," Hammer said.
The Senate Rules Committee on Thursday appointed Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, to the Senate Ethics Committee to temporarily replace a senator on the committee who faces an ethics complaint, until the ethics committee's investigation is completed.
Last week Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, declined to say whether he was temporarily replaced on the ethics committee because he was advised by Hammer through legislative staff not to answer that question.
Hammer permitted Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, to remain in the Senate Ethics Committee's meeting room Wednesday morning, after Hammer asked the public to leave the meeting room for the committee's closed-door executive session.
Afterward, Hickey said an ethics complaint has not been filed against him. He declined to comment when asked if he filed ethics complaints against Clark and Johnson.
Both Clark and Johnson each declined to comment when asked about speculation in state Capitol circles that the ethics complaints relate to accusations of one senator signing in another senator to be paid per diem for attending at least one legislative committee meeting that the senator didn't attend.
Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the state Capitol have been reimbursed at the per diem rate of $155 for attending legislative meetings in Little Rock since Oct. 1, according to Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity. Lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol are paid a lower per diem rate. Lawmakers are reimbursed at a rate of 58.5 cents a mile for their mileage.
In addition, state representatives and senators are paid $44,356 a year salary by the state except for the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, whose salary is $50,661 a year.
Hammer told the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday morning that he received two ethics violation petitions June 15 requesting the committee convene to hear the allegations in the petitions and the Senate's rules require the committee to begin an investigation within 10 business days of receipt of the petitions.
The Senate's rules allow the committee to meet in an executive session to consider the allegations in the complaints, and he intends for the committee to meet in executive session , he said. The committee will handle the two ethics complaints separately, he said.
The Senate's rules require the claimant, who files an ethics complaint, to state the basis of the accusations against the respondent during the committee's hearing, and then the respondent has an opportunity to respond to the accusations, Hammer said. Both parties are permitted to bring witnesses to the hearing, and are allowed to making closing statements before the committee deliberates over its recommendation to the full Senate, he said.
"Once the hearing and committee deliberations are concluded, the public meeting will resume in order to allow a recommendation and a motion to be made and voted on," he said. "This process will be repeated with the claimant and respondent related to the second petition."
Before the committee went into a closed-door executive session, Austin Bailey, managing editor for the Arkansas Times, told the Senate committee that she objected to the ethics committee holding Wednesday's closed-door executive session, "if we are discussing the misuse of taxpayer money.
"I feel like taxpayers should be privy to the conversation," she said.
Hammer said Bailey's objection is "duly noted."
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, participated in the Senate Ethics Committee's meeting on Wednesday by Zoom.
She told the committee she was participating in the committee's meeting from her home after recently spending several days attending legislative meetings in Little Rock.
Besides Hammer and Irvin, the other ethics committee members who participated in Wednesday's meeting included Sens. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith; Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro; Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock; and Wallace.
Flowers questioned under what authority Irvin could participate in the committee's meeting by Zoom.
Hammer said he granted Irvin permission to participate in the committee's meeting by Zoom based on protocol for the Legislative Council's executive committee that allows its members to participate in its meetings by Zoom. There is no prohibition in the Senate's rules that bar a Senate Ethics Committee member from participating in a meeting by Zoom, he said.
The Senate Rules Committee met last Thursday afternoon in a conference call to get the committee's members together to act in an expeditious fashion, he said.
Hammer said Irvin made a legitimate request to participate in the Senate Ethics Committee's meeting by Zoom and no other members made a similar request.
He said Wednesday that committee member Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, wouldn't be attending the committee's meeting that day because she was out of town and she didn't ask for permission to participate in Wednesday's meeting by Zoom.
Flowers said she would have asked Hammer to participate in Wednesday's meeting by Zoom if she knew that option existed.
Steve Cook, legal counsel for the state Senate, said at the start of Wednesday's meeting that Senate committees, such as the Senate Ethics Committee, are run by their chairs, who have full authority to decide how to run the committee, subject to a majority of the members concurring. If a majority of the Senate Ethics Committee didn't wanted Irvin to participate in Wednesday's meeting by Zoom, they could vote to overrule Hammer's decision, he said.
Under Flowers' questioning, Hammer said Irvin won't be paid per diem for participating in Wednesday's meeting.
No senator made a motion to overrule Hammer's decision to allow Irvin to participate in Wednesday's meeting by Zoom.
In June 2018, the Senate approved an overhaul of its rules to create a committee on ethics, prohibit senators from certain activities involving conflicts of interest and require more disclosure of other conflicts. The action came after federal investigations in the prior few years led to convictions of five former lawmakers.
With Clark the only audible dissenter in June 2018, then-Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, ruled that two-thirds of the body voted by voice to approve changes to its code of ethics.
At that time, Clark said he agreed with most of the new rules.