Ethics Commission confirms loopholes aplenty in 'ethics reform' law | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ethics Commission confirms loopholes aplenty in 'ethics reform' law

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2015 at 10:56 AM


While I was away, the state Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion on questions I'd raised relative to entertainment of legislators under the new constitutional amendment that nominally ended freebies for legislators.

I'll give you the full opinion below: but the long and short of it is that there are — officially — abundant ways to get around new Amendment 94's prohibition of entertainment spending on legislators.

* LOBBYIST-PAID PARTIES FOR THE HOUSE SPEAKER AND SENATE PRESIDENT: You may remember that lobbyists led by the Mullenix firm rounded up special interest money to pay for big balls for the legislative leaders at the end of the sessions, with the Republican Party of Arkansas listed as the nominal host.

May a political party establish a committee for an event paid by lobbyist solicitations? Official answer: Maybe, maybe not, but probably if it is deemed a "planned activity" to which all members of a specific governmental body are invited.

You may remember that these wingdings not only were throw-downs for the lobby, but the public was specifically barred, though the Constitution and legislative rules say all meetings of the bodies are supposed to be open to the public. Unless, I guess they are a "planned [lobbyist-paid) activity."

* POLITICAL PARTY PARTIES: Is there any restriction on entertainment provided by political parties? Probably, if there was a factual determination that a political party "directly or solicits others to communicate with any public servant with the purpose of influencing legislative action or administrative action." Wouldn't you say the specifics of party platforms, pledges and the like are attempts to influence legislative action?

* POLITICAL PARTY LOBBYISTS: Are employees of political parties lobbyists? Maybe. Maybe not. "Again," says the commission, "it would be a factual determination for the Commission to decide if a person working for the political party communicates directly or solicits others to communicate with any public servant with the purpose of influencing legislative action or administrative action." 

* THE BIG SWILL: I thought I'd ask for the record about the fact that this legislative session saw multiple freebie events on the same day, often at the same hour, paid by lobbyists under the "planned activity" exemption. Is there no restriction on such activities, when they are set in such a way that full participation won't be possible? Short answer: no. Some tinkering with the law in the legislative session does say now that a lobbyist may throw only one event each seven days and only one lobbyist may pay for a single planned activity, but otherwise drink up!

Note that the opinion covers general questions, not specific events, but you read clearly enough between the lines.

I've said it before. The so-called ethics reform amendment is a joke. It has produced 1) looser term limits for legislators 2) a 150 percent pay raise for legislators and 3) legalized free swill under the artifice of "planned activities." And, though the Ethics Commission has been given broad enforcement powers, it doesn't seem likely to exercise them.

The Commission has room to push the envelope on more ethical government and let legislators challenge cleaner government at their peril. Instead, letter-of-the-law interpretation prevails over a nobler spirit-of-the-law view even in ambiguous situations.

You can see why. The Ethics Commission is financed by legislative appropriations. It got a small increase this year to pay for badly needed additional staff. But the increase was meaningless. The governor has cut the agency's budget for the next fiscal year as part of across-the-board agency cuts to pay for Asa Hutchinson's tax cuts for the wealthy. They'll be even more unlikely to mount independent investigations, much less have the time for dealing with all the ways lobbyists and legislators are devising to get rich off "reform" legislation. Graham Sloan, the Commission director, told the group a "crisis" was looming if the governor doesn't find additional money. The chances of a Republican governor seeing a "crisis" in a shortage to enforce ethics laws or engage in fact-finding about lobbyist-paid Republican Party shindigs seem remote.

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