Looking for ethics

opinion by Maylon Rice

Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

While the year began with earth-shaking election results from November 2012, the Arkansas Republican Party held majorities in the state Senate and House. It was a rather tricky year to understand politically and a year of political intrigue.

This year, it seemed, at least in elective circles, was quiet in the on-going debate on ethics and campaign reform. But ever so slowly, Arkansans are seeing the need for stronger rules, more stringent laws and especially as the upheavals felt by of both parties in the last year are fresh in our memories.

That inertia-like ethics pace was just enough to dethrone at least two elected officials, cause another to resign her position amid “a pie-box” scandal, and as the final days of the year tick off the calendar our Lt. Governor’s future hangs by a spider’s web strand.

But let’s take these ethical lapses one at a time.

Former state Rep. Hudson Hallum, D-Marion, got caught up in a vote-buying absentee ballots scheme. Apparently, he and others were using small wads of cash and half-pints of vodka and other intoxicating spirits for absentee ballots to be obtained and voted for him. He was on already on ethical thin ice when the case imploded involving other family members. He faces fines and a possible prison term and was removed from the state House as a candidate for re-election.

On the heels of this Democratic embarrassment, state Treasurer Martha Shoffner suffered her own share of bad headlines over her management of the office of Treasurer. Shoffner, a Democrat, would be caught by federal officials in what will always be called the “pie box” scandal. She was, by her own admission, accepting cash – some stuffed in a pie box – from a securities broker doing business with the state. She did resign her office, and faces trial this spring. She declined a federal plea bargain for her day in court. Stay tuned.

Following the Session, former President Pro Tem of the state Senate Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, a legacy legislator from eastern Arkansas, was found to be in serious violation of campaign finances. He submitted his resignation after outcries from the GOP and on advice of Democratic leaders.

Now, on to newest sage of Lt. Governor Mark Darr, a Republican from Rogers.

Darr was a fierce campaigner in his 2011 race for the Republican nomination. He ran a “scorched earth” campaign in the GOP Primary and the fall’s General Election. Darr defeated all GOP comers and then, much to the surprise of the Democratic Party, upended one of the party’s up-and-comers, state Sen. Shane Broadway of Benton, thought to be a shoe-in.

In his defense, Darr ran a grass-roots campaign, promising those who supported him he would be relentless in campaigning for future Republicans all over the state. He did so in 2012 with often reckless abandon – and as it turns out – almost a direct disregard for proper record keeping and campaign finance protocols. He was so sure of his new found stature he boldly proclaimed his candidacy for the 4th District Congressional seat – even doing so near his childhood home in Mansfield (Sebastian County).

All that, would, however, come undone. And fast.

Months prior, Darr got into a tiff with a Democratic liberal blogger and suffered day after day of the blogger’s attention to detail in Darr’s campaign pervious expenditures. Finally, the mainstream media started looking at the blogger’s allegation. Darr, seeking to beat the blogger to the punch, and thus control the ethics violations, filed an ethics complaint against himself. Darr met last week with the state Ethics Commission.. The commission ruled that Darr misspent $44,000. That outcome is still in the public debate.

Despite all the conservative bills offered, many of which passed, the state still does not seem to find the right mix on new, tougher ethics laws. Both political parties suffer because of the finger-pointing and name calling of each other and their candidate’s ethical failings.

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Maybe the next legislative session, in 2015, will be different? We need a session in which real ethical legislation of those seeking political office can be crafted and enacted by the elected lawmakers.

Our state needs tougher laws. Many who agree point to the not-so-much-as-a-cup of coffee rule in used other states. This would restrict gifts, ticketed event donations and other favors lavished on politicians. Sounds good after 2013’s unseemly revelations.

But that depends upon the selections voters make in 2014, which looms ahead on our calendars.

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