Arkansas lawmakers back ethics bills after investigations
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas legislative leaders called Monday for an increase in fines for ethics violations and a measure barring elected officials convicted of certain crimes from collecting their retirement benefits, moves intended to clean up the Capitol’s image in the wake of widening corruption probes.
The top Republicans and Democrats in the predominantly GOP House and Senate announced a package of six bills focused on ethics reform following the probes that have involved several former lawmakers and lobbyists over the past two years.
“I do not, nor do any of us up here, represent this as the final solution to the problem,” Senate President Jim Hendren, a Republican, said at a news conference. “But this is another step in that direction.”
The proposals include increasing the maximum fines the state Ethics Commission can levy for a violation from $2,000 to $3,500, and to increase the commission’s staffing and funding. It also includes a proposal that would make an elected official ineligible to collect retirement benefits for their position if they’re convicted of a felony related to that position.
Hendren and Republican House Speaker Matthew Shepherd have called restoring trust in the Legislature a priority in the session, which began last month. The Senate last year overhauled its ethics rules and expanded what members have to report in income in response to the corruption cases.
Another proposal unveiled Monday would increase the penalties elected officials would face for personal use of campaign funds. Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the governor’s nephew and Hendren’s cousin, was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on charges he used thousands in campaign funds on gym memberships, Netflix subscriptions and other personal items.
Lawmakers said they’re looking at other changes as well. Shepherd said he’s still weighing a rule change or legislation to address requiring disclosures when lawmakers loan each other money. Hendren said the Senate ethics panel is also working on additional changes to that chamber’s rules.
“That’s always an ongoing process. There may be other bills or possible rule changes or otherwise that you may see,” Shepherd said.
The top Democrats in both chambers said there’s strong support among their members for the ethics changes.
“This is an opportunity for us all to put some trust, some accountability back into this process,” House Minority Leader Charles Blake, a Democrat from Little Rock, said after the news conference.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo