Can the legislature police itself?

In the wake of multiple scandals involving state legislators, Senator Jim Hendren proposed and passed revisions to the Arkansas Senate’s Code of Ethics. The revisions mandate some additional reporting of conflicts and that is good.  But the Senate plan hinges on the Senate being able to police itself when one of its members acts in unethical ways. This means a Senator must stand up and accuse another Senator of unethical conduct and other Senators must rule on the actions of their colleagues.

Do you think the Senate and the House of Representatives are capable of policing themselves? Consider this:

  1. Cobwebs on Disciplinary Proceedings: The Senate has had a code of ethics for many years and there have been no complaint hearings by Senators. They must be a very ethical bunch. Right? Meanwhile in the court system: Senator Jon Woods – guilty. Senator Jake Files –guilty. Senator Hank Wilkins IV –guilty.  Senator Jeremy Hutchinson – under indictment. Senator Paul Bookout – guilty.
  2. Solicitation of a bribe: It was recently revealed in court documents that Jon Woods solicited a $10,000 bribe from Jim Hendren to not run for the same Senate seat if they had both been put in the same district under reapportionment. Hendren refused and mentioned the bribe to law enforcement but when they said it would take him wearing a wire and getting a recorded statement to get a conviction, he dropped the matter. In addition, Jim Hendren never filed an ethics complaint which would have had a less stringent burden of proof.  Instead the Hutchinson-Hendren family later supported Jon Woods for reelection to the Senate.
  3. Obamacare Medicaid Expansion: Senator Allen Clark was interviewed by Paul Harrell of Conduit News and Clark alleged intimidation, blackmail, and bribery in the passage of Arkansas’ version of Obamacare Medicaid Expansion. Did Clark file a complaint? No.  In fact, in mentioning that a colleague was threatened with loss of business if the colleague did not vote for the Obamacare program, Clark said “I would never name the name under oath. They would just have to put me in jail. I wouldn’t name the name.
  4. Lobbyist attempted bribe: In 2013 Representative Richard Womack said in an interview “A lobbyist asked me if I would consider changing my vote [on the private option] for $20,000-$30,000 in my campaign account, as soon as they could put it in there legally, and two elections unopposed.[i] Did Womack file a complaint with the Ethics Commission or law enforcement? No.

Maybe you would have done things differently or maybe not. But, this article is not about judging how legislators handled these specific things. It is about whether the legislature can police itself.

Do you think the new Senate panel (controlled by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate) will be more rigorous in enforcing the code of ethics? Consider statements by committee member Senator Jason Rapert at the committee’s organizational meeting, as reported by the Democrat-Gazette:

“Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he worried the rules could lead to people who work for a living not being able to serve in the Senate.”

“Rapert said he doesn’t want anonymous complaints to bog the committee down.”

“Rapert said the new rules defining a consultant “as a person who provides expert or professional advice” will be “catching everybody in that.””[ii]

The point is – self policing by the legislature will not work and there is no reason for Senator Hendren to pretend it will.

Meanwhile …. the legislature weakened the ethics laws with the “do-over” rule, ended the people’s ability to amend the ethics law by initiated act, failed to pass Senator Bryan King’s bill to require disclosure of business relationships between legislators and Medicaid providers, and failed to pass Senator Linda Collins-Smith’s bill to prohibit legislators who are lawyers or consultants from representing clients before the legislature.



[i] “Richard Womack: No Pie for Me!” Arkansas Project 3/21/2013

[ii] “Arkansas senators in new panel on ethics get to work” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, June 29, 2018