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Arkansas Senate approves overhaul of ethics rules

June 19, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday to overhaul its ethics and conflict of interest rules following the conviction of several lawmakers in bribery schemes over the past year, but the chamber’s incoming leader said a newly formed committee will have to hash out the details on how to carry out the new requirements.

The Senate approved the rules, which create an eight-member committee that will handle complaints against senators by fellow senators. It also requires senators to provide more detailed statements of financial interest than are currently required under state law.

The changes follow 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. Senate leaders proposed the changes days after a lobbyist 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.

“We’ve got to start taking concrete action to right the ship,” Incoming Senate President Jim Hendren, who is also a nephew of the governor’s, said before the vote.

Under the rules, the committee will investigate complaints against senators and issue recommendations to the full chamber. If a senator is found to have violated the code of ethics, sanctions range from a letter of caution to expulsion.

Hendren said the committee will need to work in the coming months on how to implement the new rules, including the expanded disclosure forms. They will also need to offer more guidance on how to carry out a requirement that a public disclosure be read aloud publicly beforehand if a senator participates in debate or votes on something in which he or she has a financial interest. Some lawmakers questioned whether that would mean a statement disclosing that senators are part of the state’s retirement system be read before they take up any matter regarding the system.

The rules also will require that senators regularly receive ethics training, rather than just sign a form acknowledging they understand the code of ethics.

Republican Sen. Alan Clark, the only lawmaker heard voting against the new rules, said he agreed with most of the changes but was worried about moving too quickly on the requirements.

“I think this is more about trying to reassure people that we’re doing something and sometimes that leads to bad, unintended consequences,” Clark said.

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