Sixteen felon Arkansas politicians and counting
By David Ferguson
Late last year former State Representative Micah Neal pled guilty of taking kickbacks for authorizing state General Improvement Funds (GIF) for Ecclesia College, a private college. Early this year former State Senator Jon Woods was indicted in the scheme.
Has the recent corruption spurred the legislature to end discretionary GIF spending by legislators? Nope. Unfortunately, the legislature’s lack of action is no surprise. The legislature never makes changes when one of their own gets into trouble. Instead, politicians have continued to weaken ethics rules and have passed more exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to hide information from the public.
SIXTEEN AND COUNTING
After hearing about Micah Neal’s guilty plea, I sat down and tried to remember names of legislators and Arkansas’ constitutional officers who became felons. I came up with SIXTEEN names, and my list only includes those who were serving or began serving after I started work for the legislature in 1980. The list does not include Micah Neal.
- EIGHT were convicted for conduct related to their service in office. This includes an Attorney General, a Treasurer of State, and six legislators, (The Treasurer of State previously served as a legislator but is not counted as a legislator here.)
- TWO sitting politicians (a Governor and a legislator) were convicted for conduct occurring before assuming the office. (One of them, the legislator, was convicted of election fraud in getting elected to the legislature.)
- TWO former legislators who went on to serve as state employees were convicted of offenses related to their state employment
- FOUR former legislators were convicted of felonies not related to their service as a legislator. (The most interesting felony by a former legislator concerned a scheme to sell surplus Canadian helicopters to Saddam Hussein of Iraq.)
The list of sixteen does not include:
- A legislator who pled down to a misdemeanor for embezzlement from his company, or
- A former legislator who pled to a misdemeanor for running a gambling house.
Some legislators who got in trouble with the law apparently got off the hook by offering testimony against others.
Crimes of those convicted while serving in office include: mail fraud, bribery, money laundering, defrauding government programs, kickbacks, embezzlement, and tax fraud.
The biggest investigation of Arkansas legislators was in the late 1990’s. You would have thought the legislature was a Weight Watchers group, so many legislators lost weight during the investigation. It began as a criminal investigation into a new government program. Before the investigation was over crimes were uncovered in other areas as well.
RESPONDING TO CORRUPTION IN OFFICE
How has the legislature responded after each conviction? Usually, by expressing disappointment and disgust, but never doing anything to head off more corruption.
Arkansas’ ethics law (initiated by the people) has been amended again and again by the legislature to add exceptions. Such as:
- In 2015, the ethics law was amended to allow a legislator who files false or incorrect financial information to change the information after the public catches him, without any consequence, not even a letter of caution or warning.
- The proposal that was supposed to end gifts to legislators from lobbyists, allows lobbyists to wine and dine legislators at every meal, as long as the lobbyist invites at least a full committee.
The big investigation of the late 1990’s began with the creation of a new program which was attached to a budget bill as “special language”. The legislature could have adopted a simple rule to limit what kind of special language could be added to budget bills but has never done so.
With the recent guilty plea by Micah Neal how is the 2017 legislature responding to reform and ethics legislation?
- In the Micah Neal situation, he was able to get kickbacks because legislators have unlimited discretion over a pile of General Improvement Funds (GIF). The only proposal to end legislative GIF went no where and would have given the money to the Governor as ….. discretionary funds. Even if passed it still would allow the problem of discretionary spending and the potential for deals.
- In 2013 Arkansas passed Obamacare Medicaid Expansion and some legislators complained of bribery, blackmail, and intimidation.
Senator Bryan King filed SB175 to require disclosure of business dealings between legislators and Medicaid service providers. Although it passed in the Senate, the bill is stuck in House committee where there are legislators who are known to benefit from Medicaid business. Although Republicans bragged at the beginning of the legislative session that they had the votes to pull any good bill out of committee in a vote on it on the floor, I know of no effort to do that for this ethics bill. (See article by Conduit for Action: Despite past allegations of bribery and intimidation, Arkansas committee says “no” to disclosure bill)
- SB726 by Senator Linda Collins Smith would close a loophole that lets attorney-legislators and consultant-legislators lobby the legislature on behalf of clients without violating the prohibition against lobbying. The attorneys and consultants can do this by merely writing their contract so that the fees they get for representing the client don’t include pay for lobbying. Her bill is still in the Senate and is expected to get strong opposition by those who now can use their legislative position to enhance their attorney practice or consulting business.
- The legislature continues to work to hide information through exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). One bad bill to weaken FOIA that only needs Senate approval to concur in a House amendment is SB373.
There may be other ethics related bills that have not come to mind. With the end of the legislative session nearly here, the ethics bills will certainly die if the public does not speak up.
Why didn’t I list the names of the felons referred to in this article? First, their names are not important for the point being made here. Second, I worked with and liked nearly every one of them. Some have passed, and for some of them it has been a long time since their names were in the news. The fact I like them, just made it harder to see them get in trouble and know others will likely get in trouble in the future.
(If you still want to know their names it is easy to Google the information on most of them. But if all you got out of this article was a quest to look up names, you have missed the point.)
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Without you insisting on stronger ethics rules … the only response from legislators to scandals will be a mere expression of disappointment and disgust for a colleague who goes to jail. And, business will continue as usual.
The 2017 legislative session is about to end.
David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature. After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.