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Bills' Author Says Ethics Legislation Nonpartisan, But Will Majority Party Agree?

Danny Johnston/AP

Democrats in the House and Senate have filed a number of ethics bills, none more than Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis. But the Senate Committee set to evaluate his legislation hasn’t a single Democrat on it, and at least one Republican says he’s not enthusiastic about the amendments.

State Sen. Keith Ingram’s ethics bills range from prohibiting elected officials from forming more than one political action committee, or taking loans from lobbyists, to prohibiting political contributions between the time politicians are elected and the time they're sworn into office. Another bill would deny judges immunity and open them up to lawsuits if they're found to have taken bribes — a legislative rejoinder specific to the felony conviction of  Falkner Co. Circuit Judge Michael Maggio.

"Certainly as a layman, I found it unbelievable that you could not sue a judge who rendered a judgment against you who was later found guilty of taking a bribe," Ingram said. "The Maggio case is the one obviously that I’m referring to, the judgment was lowered from $5 million to $1 million — that judgment still stands. That family is still out the $4 million that the judge has admitted taking a bribe for!"

Five of the six ethics amendments sponsored by the senator from West Memphis lead the agenda for the Senate Committee that deals with governmental affairs, but they didn’t get a hearing this week Tuesday morning inside the old Supreme Court chambers at the Capitol. That’s not unusual. Committee chairs frequently announce critical scheduling changes at the start of committee hearings. 

Anyway, Ingram's bills still gathering endorsements and even co-sponsors, he said.

State Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock has sponsored four more, and both Democrats used the term “nonpartisan” to describe their approach.

"A lot of this is just clean up and common sense,” Ingram said.

Credit Danny Johnston/AP
State Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs

But Republican state Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs said ethics reform is entirely in the purview of his party. The majority party.

"If there’s going to be an ethics reform package, it’s going to be something we [Republicans] totally agree with, or something that we present."

Hester is one of the eight Republican members of the Senate Committee that’ll examine Ingram’s package. 

"One of the bills restricts the amount of time people can gather money for campaigns and retire debt. I think what that is, that’s a direct attack on poorer Arkansans. You know, it says us wealthy people who don’t need to raise money who don’t need to retire debt, us elitists, we’re going to stay in office and the poor people don’t stand a chance. I think, those are some of the things that I totally disagree with that the Democrats are pushing for. I think that everyone, regardless of the amount of money you make, everyone should have the opportunity to stay in office."

Some of the legislation had merit, but "what keeps coming to mind is, [most of] it is not necessary."

Ingram acknowledged Arkansas's existing body of ethics laws was robust and precise.

"I assure you that the ethics laws that we comply with are as technical as the IRS code. It is arduous, and you really have to dot your I's and cross your T's. It is easy for a legislator to overlook something, especially those legislators who are doing it themselves who can’t afford to have an assistant or somebody to fill that out for them."

But he also said ethics is an "evolving" need.

Ingram is the son and brother of state legislators. He came to the capitol in 2009, at a time of Democratic abundance. Today, his party is in such steep decline that not a single Democrat even sits on the Senate committee scheduled to give his ethics package a first listen.

"It doesn’t make any difference to most people, I would venture to think, whether their legislator is a Democrat or a Republican, if they’re violating ethics issues. The reverse of that is true, too: As long as they have a strong ethics package, people don’t care whether its a Republican or a Democrat that’s authoring the legislation."

Ingram expects about a dozen Democratic ethics amendments to come up this session, about 10 of which he’s sponsored or co-sponsor. He further expects his bills before the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs to get a hearing before the end of the month.

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