Legislature continues effort to chip away at ethics law | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Legislature continues effort to chip away at ethics law

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 9:40 AM

click to enlarge GILLAM: Leading the hogs to the trough. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • GILLAM: Leading the hogs to the trough.

The House Rules committee yesterday approved a bill codifying additional exceptions for travel junkets to the laws prohibiting gifts from lobbyists to public officials and creating an explicit exemption for swag given out to legislators at fancy balls. Really.

Having spoken with a few lawmakers and experts, there is still some question about precisely what House Bill 1401, sponsored by House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, would do. But it sure smells like an effort to further undermine Amendment 94 and open up a massive loophole for legislators to enjoy more lobbyist largesse.

The background, familiar to readers of this blog: Amendment 94, the legislatively referred amendment to the constitution passed by voters in 2014, prohibited legislators from receiving gifts from lobbyists. Sen. Jon Woods (ironically) was a co-sponsor of the bill labeled as ethics reform that led to Amendment 94, and he ensured that there was a gaping loophole allowing free meals and drinks from lobbyists under certain circumstances. Woods continued efforts to undermine those who had originally pushed for an ethics amendment with Act 1280 in 2015, which opened up more potential for abuse via travel junkets, raised the maximum political contribution allowed, and other shenanigans.

Woods, for whatever complex of reasons, left the legislature this year. Now Gillam is taking up the mantle of slinging arrows into ethics law. It's worth noting that the list of stuff that is not considered a prohibited "gift" for the purposes of Amendment 94 is already more than two pages long! Gillam wants yet more exceptions.

Gillam's bill exempts "transportation for tours or briefings ... furthering the person's understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas" from Amendment 94's prohibition on gifts." Read: junkets.

Act 1280 already established incredibly broad allowable freebies under the rubric of "payments by regional or national organizations for ... regional or national conferences" — including paying for transportation, lodging, and conference registration fees.  Airplane tickets and fancy hotels: No problem! And that last one, "conference registration fees," is key. Act 1280 explicitly codified that that includes food and drink. It's a clear loophole to allow legislators to be wined and dined. Slap an event on the program and it's open season for lobbyists.

Gillam's bill would add an exemption for junkets arranged by a foreign nation employing a lobbyist, which seems to be the bit that he's highlighting. The idea is ostensibly to allow "trade missions" in which foreign nations bring lawmakers or other public officials over to discuss opportunities for trade. It's worth noting that the bill's exemption only demands that the trip be arranged by a foreign nation; as far as I can tell, there would be no prohibition on a lobbyist paying for the plane tickets and hotels for the trip, or paying for food and drinks at the destination. Well. World travel on someone else's dime is a nice perk.

Additionally, it creates an exemption for travel arranged by the United States government (such as meetings in Washington D.C. between the governor's administration and officials from a federal department like Health and Human Services). I'm skeptical that Amendment 94 as it stands prohibits the U.S. government from paying for travel for lawmakers in these circumstances, but so be it. Note again, it seems to open the floodgates given that once the trip is "arranged" by the U.S. government, there are no prohibitions on who pays for associated travel expenses. You can get a pretty good meal in D.C.

But it's not just government-sponsored travel. Gillam's bill also appears to further codify and broaden gift exemptions for other regional or national travel. Here's the key: It explicitly allows lobbyists — not just regional or national organizations, as under current law — to pay for "transportation." Gillam says that his intent is to allow a lobbyist to, for example, pay for a van for an on-site tour of a factory. But it sure looks to me like it could be interpreted to allow lobbyists to pay for travel costs for anything that "further[s] the person's understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas." Plane tickets, not just vans. In other words, it looks so broad that it could blow the lid off of any prohibition on lobbyists using giveaway junkets to curry favor with legislators.

Meanwhile, laughably, the bill also allows unlimited giveaways at inaugural events of any constitutional officer, member of the General Assembly, or the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as the "recognition events" of the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. Gillam's bill says that "anything of value provided by the host as part of attendance" at one of these events is A-OK.  Slosh out the freebies at, say, the Governor's Inaugural Ball, and there are no prohibitions! Keep in mind that these balls are already preposterously lavish affairs, with food and flower arrangements that cost more than the average Arkansan makes in a year. Gillam's bill would allow, for example, swag bags to be given out to attendees with no limitation whatsoever.

In addition to opening the floodgates for lobbyists, note that Gillam's exemptions would also, in practice, add situations in which the $100-cap for gifts from non-lobbyists no longer applies. Fun!

After Woods' hijinks and now this from Gillam, Amendment 94's prohibition of gifts from lobbyists would be thoroughly defanged. We'd be left with the prohibition on one-on-one wining and dining in town. That's it.

The House Rules committee passed Gillam's bill yesterday with no discussion on a unanimous voice vote. Let me suggest a few questions they might have asked if they had been awake, or cared:

Would this bill allow lobbyists, in practice, to wine and dine legislators so long as it happened at an out-of-state conference and was a listed event?

Would this bill allow lobbyists, in practice, to pay for travel to and from an event either in state or out-of-state so long as it "further[ed] the person's understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas"?

Under this bill, could a lobbyist pay to fly a lawmaker for a one-on-one "briefing" from an advocacy group or a corporation?

Would this bill allow free laptops to be given out to all attendees of an inaugural ball event? If not, why not?

Could a lobbyist, under this bill, directly pay for international travel and all hotel costs so long as a foreign nation arranged the trip? If a public official is on such a trip, could lobbyists, in practice, wine and dine without restriction?

Under this bill, if a public official was on a junket arranged by a foreign nation, could a lobbyist provide his credit card number to pay for a dinner? If not, why not?

The full House will take up the bill this week. We'll see if there's any discussion this time.

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