Meet Legislator X: John Burris | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meet Legislator X: John Burris

Posted By on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 3:19 PM

LEGISLATOR X: John Burris is the man.
  • LEGISLATOR X: John Burris is the man.
 I wrote this morning about one of many interesting campaign finance reports on file at the secretary of state's office. I hoped to encourage some bipartisan agreement that the practice illustrated there is a practice in need of correction.

The rest of the story:

The reports were those of state Rep. John Burris, the Father of Arkansas Obamacare. As an unopposed candidate heading into his final term in 2012, he raised $43,000 and spent a good portion of it attending "ticketed" events for other Republican legislators and a handful of other political candidates.

Burris slotted the expenditures under "advertising" on his campaign finance reports. He defends this as the readiest category to be used, but notes that the itemized contributions identify the ticket purchases for various candidates. And how does this comport with the Arkansas rules that describe campaign contributions to others as prohibited personal use of campaign money? (The rule does say candidates may present explanations on a case-by-case basis.)

Burris has a ready answer. In fact, he said he took his case before the state Ethics Commission after a complaint was filed last year over the numerous checks he wrote. The Commission voted 4-0, with one absent, to dismiss the complaint. It cleared him, in other words. Burris argues that his appearance at such events "enhances his exposure" to others in the public policy arena and he, as a representative, benefits enormously. True. It doesn't hurt to give a future legislative colleague money. (One wrinkle on these ticketed events: You sometimes have to pay four or five times -- $200 to numerous candidates, for example -- to attend a single event. One ticket to one event is one thing. Five tickets to the same event is another.)

I also quibbled about some other specifics in the Burris report -- for example, ticket purchases reported after the general election, when no expenses are allowed except thankyou advertising and some unidentified reimbursements of Burris himself (for other "tickets," he tells me.) Burris argues that these payments effectively could fall under carryover expenditures where, again, he would argue that any expenditure that enhances his work as a legislator qualifies for payment.

I'd call it a loophole, but the exception seems much larger than a mere loophole.

I ranted at Burris a while.. We agreed to disagree. I'll post shortly the dismissal letter issued by the Ethics Commission. Like Easy Ed Meese, add John Burris to the list of never convicted.

But I finish where I began and also with what I wrote in my column this week. The clear language of ethics rules is intended to discourage contributions to other campaigns. The language is being ignored wholesale. It's influence peddling with contributions, mostly from special interests. It's wrong. I'd argue more harm is done to the public interest by such money laundering in the interest of political agendas than the corrupt galoot who converts his campaign money to liquor, meals and a 64-inch HDTV for strictly personal benefit.

Sen. Bruce Maloch of Magnolia filed legislation in 2013 to end the ticketed event charade. It died in committee. It should be revived and passed. PS That bill failed on a party line vote, with Republicans in opposition.

Worth further elaboration at some point is an ethics awakening Burris may have experienced the other day when lobbyist Ted Mullenix, a former Republican lawmaker who now labors for some residential youth treatment facilities among many others,  threw a fancy wine-and-dine at Arthur's for a legislative committee. Mullenix hoped to throw a monkey wrench in planned rules changes on health care reimbursements.. As the story was told to me, a plan had been in the works by Burris and others for weeks, including multiple invitations for all interested to attend. Mullenix, in addition to throwing his credit card around, reportedly tried to throw some political weight around with Burris, threatening retribution in political races as leverage on the state policy issue. Wild pitch. Burris isn't talking about it. But I'm reliably informed PG-words were exchanged. I don't think the final chapter has been written.

If the episode adds a powerful legislator to the movement to end legislative wine-and-dines at Arthur's, I might be inclined to consider that as mitigation on the other.



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