Speaker's bill to weaken ethics law amended; still chips away at ethics law | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Speaker's bill to weaken ethics law amended; still chips away at ethics law

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2017 at 11:43 AM

GILLAM: Re-writing the rules, for more freebies.
  • GILLAM: Re-writing the rules, for more freebies.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam
's bill to create more exemptions and loopholes in ethics law was amended yesterday as promised and sailed through senate committee (it's looking like a fait accompli).

Three small amendments were made. The modifications change it from a bill that completely torches ethics law and the original intent behind Amendment 94 to a bill that merely chips away at ethics law. I've covered the potential problems and loopholes for lobbyist largesse at length here and here. While it's certainly been improved, the bill's backers are significantly overselling the extent to which their "fixes" solve all of the bill's problems. Let's look at the amendments.

1) The bill has been amended to clarify its exemption for "transportation," limiting it to in-state ground transportation. The bill makes it perfectly legal for lobbyists or anyone else to pay for transportation for "tours or briefings." That could be pretty much anything, and as originally written, it appeared to allow lobbyists to pay, for example, for the cost of airplane tickets to and from a conference or event, or even to and from a one-on-one meeting with an advocacy group or corporation.

The exemption now only applies to in-state travel, and it can only be done via car, bus, or other ground transportation. Gillam says that he wants to allow, for example, a van to be paid for at an on-site tour of a factory.  This exemption would allow that. It would also allow, as amended, a lobbyist or anyone else to pay for ground transportation for anything in the state that could be sold as a "briefing...furthering the person's understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas" (that would be pretty much anything). An advocacy group could, for example, pay for a northwest Arkansas lawmaker to make a trip by car to Little Rock. (Keep in mind that these gift exceptions don't just open the doors to lobbyists, they nix the $100-limit in place for gifts for everyone else.) All that said, the amendment does close one of the biggest loopholes in the original bill: the blanket exception for transportation now only applies within the state.

This is better than what Gillam originally filed, which would have essentially eliminated any limitations on travel junkets. However, that doesn't change the fact that Gillam's bill also codifies and clarifies massive loopholes under Act 1280 of 2015, which allowed lawmakers to use the ruse of "payments by regional or national organizations for ... regional or national conferences" for travel junkets (including transportation, lodging, conference registration fees, and food and drink associated with the conference) anywhere in the nation. Act 1280 already gave some wiggle room allowing lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers attending such conferences. Gillam's bill shuffles the language and subsections around to make things crystal clear: As long as an event is slapped on the program ("dinner out" or "steak dinner"), it's open season for lobbyists. Without limitation, lobbyists can treat lawmakers attending these conferences to lavish dinners out on the town listed as wink-wink program events.

In summary: Gillam's bill originally removed basically any prohibition for national travel junkets; as amended, it merely allows lobbyists to buy lavish dinners for legislators attending regional or national conferences (as well as allowing lobbyists to pay for in-state travel for anything else).

2) The bill has been amended to limit the exemption for international travel. Now it only applies to "international travel paid for by a foreign nation or a representative or affiliate of a foreign nation." This is the bit that purports to be about crucially important trade missions. The amendment does make Gillam's bill narrower. As originally written, lobbyists or anyone else could pay for airplane tickets, hotels, and food and drink at the location — so long as the international travel was arranged by a foreign nation. Now, the bill has been amended to limit who can pay for the freebies. But (surprise!) they've added some wiggle words. The giveaways have to be paid for by a foreign nation or a representative or affiliate of a foreign nation.

If a foreign nation hired a lobbyist, would that lobbyist be "an affiliate" of the foreign nation? It sure seems like it. Even if such a direct play was ruled a no-no, it would be trivially easy for a foreign nation to give a lobbyist a designated position that would clearly amount to "representative or affiliate." Gillam says that this amendment precludes the possibility of a lobbyist paying for an international travel junket and its assorted goodies. I'm sorry, but based on the actual language of the amended bill, that's simply not true. The amendment definitely makes the loophole less massive and egregious, but a loophole remains.

2a) This note is not about an amendment but about the lack of one: Amusingly, though they addressed the loophole for travel "arranged" by foreign nations described above, they left the similar exemption for travel "arranged" by the U.S. government untouched. In other words, if lawmakers make a trip for a meeting arranged by federal officials (to discuss health care policy, for example), lobbyists can then wine and dine them while they're in D.C. The "fix" made for international travel didn't get applied to this one at all.

3) Swag bag and freebies given out at fancy balls now have to be given to all attendees. Heh. This is a slight narrowing of Gillam's original bill but it retains the purpose of allowing 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. (Keep in mind that these balls are typically preposterously lavish affairs, with food and flower arrangements that cost more than the average Arkansan makes in a year.)

Under the bill as originally written, a host of one of these events could theoretically single out individual attendees for swag (say, give a watch to all legislators in attendance). There was also no time limit — a host could give gifts, without limitation, to an attendee even after the event was over, indefinitely. They could give someone a new gift every month. The amendment clarifies that the freebies have to go to all attendees of the event, as part of their attendance at the event. Swag bags can still be given out, but the same swag bag has to be given to everyone. If someone wanted to give out laptops to all attendees, it would be perfectly legal, but expensive.

Do all of these amendments make a bad bill incrementally less bad? Sure. But even as amended, this is not a bill narrowly crafted to allow vital trade missions for state government, it's a bill crafted broadly for the purpose of enabling more freebies for lawmakers.

The whole thing stinks. More than the specific exemptions, the scandal here is the utter sham of sneaking in loopholes via legalese and claiming it's all just good-faith fixes. If they want to scrap the ethics law, they should just make their case, rather than surreptitiously slipping in pages of exemptions. When I hear the bill's backers explain it, it is hard for me to not to conclude that their strategy is to rely on people to take them at their word rather than carefully read the bill. Such oleaginous trickery leads me to conclude that they are motivated by more than trade missions. They simply do not want to follow the ethics rules that the people voted for, so they are re-writing them, as quietly as they can.

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