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Arkansas Ethics Commission

The Arkansas Ethics Commission is the appointed body that oversees the implementation and application of Arkansas’s governmental ethics laws. It was created by an initiated act in 1990, and its authority has been altered since that time by a series of laws and constitutional amendments.

During the legislative sessions of the 1980s, including a particularly rancorous 1988 special session, Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial administration put forward bills requiring lobbyists to register, disclose interactions with elected officials, and limit the size of their gifts. These efforts to bring Arkansas’s ethics laws into the national mainstream were continually thwarted by an Arkansas General Assembly accustomed to a political culture in which cozy relationships between lobbyists and decision-makers had existed for years.

Taking advantage of the first general election in which a governor did not have to run for reelection (a constitutional amendment had shifted the state from two-year to four-year terms for all constitutional offices), Governor Clinton used his political operation to carry out a successful initiative effort that culminated in the passage of the Standards of Conduct and Disclosure Act for Lobbyists and State Officials in 1988. The act required lobbyists to register with the secretary of state, to file regular reports of their gifts to public servants and other expenses, and to state their associations with the individuals or groups whom they lobby. It also required officeholders to disclose information about their financial activities and gift sources. Particularly strong are Arkansas’s disclosure provisions (rated thirteenth in financial disclosure policies for the state legislature by the Center for Public Integrity, a “good government” nonprofit, in 2009). That legislation, however, lacked an appropriate regulatory body for the new governmental responsibilities.

A follow-up initiated act in 1990, also promoted by Clinton, established the five-member Arkansas Ethics Commission, whose stated mission is “to serve as the compliance and enforcement agency under Arkansas’ standards of conduct and disclosure laws concerning candidates for public office, state and local public officials, lobbyists and committees, and individuals involved with initiatives, referendums and other matters referred to the voters.” The members of the commission are appointed in staggered terms by the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the president pro tem of the Arkansas Senate, and the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives.

The commission, affected by a nearly constant turnover in executive directors during the first decade of its existence, was slow in implementing certain provisions in the initial ethics laws (some of which included imprecise language). Instead, the commission often relied on advisory opinions that lack the power of law rather than establishing rules that are subject to public comment upon proposal but have the force of law once adopted.

Early in the 2000s, the commission did begin establishing rules, which caused friction with both the legislative and executive branches. Most controversial was the rule established in 2000 that deemed illegal any gift in excess of $100 given to “reward” officials for their job performance, even if no quid pro quo is evidenced. (This position was challenged in court by Governor Mike Huckabee, the recipient of $112,366 in gifts in 1999.) The state House protested the activist commission’s rule-making on this and other matters by delaying passage of the commission’s appropriations bill in the 2001 session. Still, the 2001 legislature failed to overturn the rule when it defeated a measure that would have banned gifts only when they were in specific exchange for a governmental action. Moreover, the legislature passed a bill that made illegal the actual giving of the illegal gift, albeit with small penalties for violations.

In 2014, the state’s voters passed a constitutional amendment that barred lobbyists from providing most things of value to legislators and other state elected officials. However, there were loopholes in the original amendment, and implementation legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2015 provided additional exceptions for what, on paper, appears to be a strict gift ban.

Though the commission has the power to impose hefty fines, file misdemeanor charges, or turn over cases to local prosecutors, over time it has generally relied on the public chastisement that accompanies the release of letters of reprimand. However, in 2013, the commission engaged in two high-profile cases that resulted in the largest fines in the agency’s history. In August of that year, state Senator Paul Bookout of Jonesboro (Craighead County) was reprimanded and fined $8,000 for four violations related to improper campaign contributions; he ultimately resigned and pleaded guilty in a federal prosecution. Later that year, the commission settled with Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr over a series of ethics violations; the result was $11,000 in fines and, ultimately, his being pressured to resign from office.

Still, it is clear that Arkansas now has in place the basic mechanics for regulating governmental ethics and heightened expectations that governmental officials carry out their work in an ethical manner. It remains one of the most lasting contributions of the Clinton era to state government.

For additional information:
“Arkansas: Legislative Financial Disclosure Ranking.” Center for Public Integrity, http://www.publicintegrity.org/2009/06/25/9067/arkansas-legislative-financial-disclosure-ranking (accessed October 20, 2015).

Arkansas Ethics Commission. http://www.arkansasethics.com/ (accessed October 20, 2015).

Blair, Diane D. and Jay Barth. Arkansas Politics and Government: Do the People Rule? 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Blinder, Alan. “Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Faces Calls to Quit Over Ethics Violations.” New York Times, December 31, 2013. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/01/us/politics/arkansas-lieutenant-governor-faces-calls-to-quit-over-ethics-violations.html (accessed October 20, 2015).

“Sen. Bookout Receives $8,000 Fine, Reprimand From Ethics Commission.” Talk Business & Politics, August 16, 2013. http://talkbusiness.net/2013/08/sen-bookout-receives-8000-fine-reprimand-from-ethics-commission/ (accessed October 20, 2015).

Jay Barth
Hendrix College

Last Updated 8/19/2016

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