LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Senate leaders on Thursday proposed an overhaul of the chamber’s ethics and conflict-of-interest rules a week after a lawmaker who is also the governor’s nephew was implicated in a bribery and corruption probe.
Several top senators, included the current and incoming presidents of the state Senate, detailed the proposals that will go before the full Senate for a vote on Tuesday. The plan comes after a lobbyist last week said he bribed a lawmaker identified only as “Senator A” in court documents. Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson’s attorney has acknowledged his client is the lawmaker referred to, but has denied the allegations. Hutchinson, who is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, has not been charged in the probe.
The accusation follows a series of indictments and convictions of lawmakers and lobbyists that have included one former senator being convicted in a kickback scheme involving a small college and another pleading guilty to pocketing thousands in state funds intended for a sports complex’s construction.
“Time and time again, we continue to have some people make poor decisions and it’s clear we need to establish better guardrails for those,” Incoming Senate President Jim Hendren, who is also a nephew of the governor and a cousin of Sen. Hutchinson, told reporters.
There’s been no suggestion that the governor is implicated or involved in the allegations involving this nephew.
The proposed rules include a requirement that any senator who is indicted is stripped of any leadership position they may hold. It also calls for a five-member “Select Committee on Senate Ethics” that would investigate ethics complaints against senators and issue recommendations to the full Senate. If the Senate finds a member violated the ethics code, sanctions range from a letter of caution to expulsion.
Senators under the measure would also be required to submit more detailed financial disclosure statements than the annual reports they currently file with the state, and they would be supplemented on a quarterly basis. It also requires senators to take an annual ethics course rather than just sign a form that they understand the code of ethics.
Senate leaders said they’re also looking at ethics and conflict of interest legislation to take up during next year’s session. Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield said they should include measures that failed last year, including a ban on lawmakers appearing before a legislative panel or chamber as an attorney or consultant for another person or entity.
A top Democrat in the majority-Republican House said he believed the chamber needed to also work on changes to its ethics rules.
“I think we should go further than the Senate in shining a light on these,” said Rep. Michael John Gray, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman.
Democratic nominee for governor Jared Henderson released the following statement in response to the Senators ethics overhaul:
“The challenge of corruption in government is larger than the Senate and requires more than fine-tuning ethics rules in one chamber. I appreciate efforts of Senators who have come together to release a few small steps this morning, but Arkansas has an opportunity to act boldly to broadly improve the culture of politics in our state. Our citizens should be able to expect more, but it will take leadership from the top, preferably our governor, to get it right,” Henderson said.
“We cannot kick this can down the road and wait for substantial changes months from now,” Henderson added. “In response, I will release a continued set of ethics proposals Monday morning highlighting serious needs left unaddressed by the Senate’s proposals. Our state can overcome this infection of corruption in our Capitol, but it will require our leaders’ willingness to introduce zero-tolerance legislation.”