Senator Jeremy Hutchinson, (R) – Little Rock, has been indicted on charges of wire fraud and tax fraud. The prosecution says Hutchinson diverted tens of thousands of dollars from campaign funds and used the money for personal use. Jeremy Hutchinson quickly resigned from the Senate but maintains his innocence.
If this scenario sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Just five years ago in 2013, Hutchinson’s Senate colleague Senator Paul Bookout, (D) – Jonesboro, resigned from the Senate because Bookout misappropriated campaign funds for personal use. Eventually, Bookout entered a guilty plea for mail fraud.
Did Jeremy Hutchinson learn nothing from seeing his colleague become a felon?
LEGISLATURE FAILS TO RESPOND
In the face of Bookout’s resignation and conviction what did the legislature do to address the problem? Nothing. No complaint was filed in the Senate and no legislation was offered to strengthen campaign finance law or to strengthen enforcement by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
In fact, the legislature doing nothing would have been better than what the legislature did. Instead of strengthening our laws, the legislature weakened state law through a “do-over” rule.
In 2015 the legislature passed Act 1280, which included the do-over rule.[i] Under the do-over rule, once someone discovers the legislator’s financial report is untrue, the legislator has thirty days to do-over the report without penalty or investigation. Legislators said the do-over rule was about correcting inadvertent mistakes. But the do-over rule also protects legislators who hide financial information and if discovered claim it was all just a reporting mistake. While the exemption only applies to an “unintentional error” it would be nearly impossible to prove the report was an intentional falsification. (See text of A.C.A. 7-6-229 below.)[ii]
The do-over rule makes it much harder for the Arkansas Ethics Commission to pursue violations. It helps legislators avoid Arkansas Ethics Commission investigations and sanctions but does not protect them from federal charges such as those brought against Hutchinson.
Senator Jim Hendren (Jeremy Hutchinson’s cousin) claims the Senate has already responded through new Senate rules. No. The new Senate rules have NOTHING to do with campaign money.[iii] Note: Senator Hendren is part of the problem – he voted for the “do-over” rule.
RESPONDING TO CORRUPTION
STEP ONE: Repeal the “do-over” rule.
STEP TWO: Give the Arkansas Ethics Commission the power and resources needed to effectively monitor the campaign finance and ethics laws.
STEP THREE: Give the Arkansas Ethics Commission independence to do its work through: (A) A dedicated funding stream; and (B) Broader representation on the commission. (Currently two of the five commissioners are appointed by legislators. The other three are appointed by the Governor, Attorney General, and Lieutenant Governor.)[iv]
STEP FOUR: Elect people to the legislature who will not turn a blind eye to corruption in their midst.
[ii] 7-6-229. Amendment of reports — Affirmative defense
(a) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution or disciplinary action if a person required to file a report under this subchapter amends the report within thirty (30) days of discovering or learning of an unintentional error in the report.
(b) (1) The Arkansas Ethics Commission shall not proceed with an investigation of an alleged error in a report filed under this subchapter if the commission determines that a person would be eligible to raise the affirmative defense under subsection (a) of this section.
(2) If the commission does not proceed with an investigation of an alleged error in a report under subdivision (b)(1) of this section, the person shall not be considered to have committed a violation of the applicable statute.
(c) This section shall not be construed to:
(1) Remove the duty to file a report under this subchapter; or
(2) Authorize a person to knowingly fail to file a report under this subchapter.
[iii] Legislators react to senator’s indictment, Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette 09/01/2018 – ““It’s no secret that we’ve got a problem in the Legislature,” Hendren said. “The first step to solving a problem is recognizing it exists. We’ve already recognized it in the Senate.” “Hendren pointed to actions already taken by the Senate — the chamber approved an overhaul of its rules that created an ethics committee and developed new conflict-of-interest requirements, including more disclosure of personal finances.”
[iv] A.C.A. § 7-6-217