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Senate Ethics Committee to take up per diem abuse. Will it do so in public?

Arkansas News Headlines
Arkansas News Headlines

Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported over the weekend about a Senate Ethics Committee meeting Wednesday and Thursday that has been evolving in near-secrecy and a question remains whether the public will be allowed to follow the discussion.

Senators were mum about the reasons for the meeting except to grudgingly confirm to Wickline that Sen. David Wallace of Leachville would replace one member of the committee, probably Sen. Mark Johnson, who declined comment. Wickline said Sen. Alan Clark wouldn’t comment when asked if he was involved in the matter under discussion.

Here are details from the story circulating at the Capitol: The meeting concerns a senator signing the sign-in sheet at a Senate meeting for a senator who wasn’t in attendance. Attendance at a meeting qualifies a legislator for $151 in essentially tax-free per diem, nominally intended to defray the cost of attendance.

It would be fraudulent — if not legally but by any ethical standard — to claim money for a meeting a person didn’t attend.

This particular complaint, I’m told, does NOT apply to Sen. Trent Garner, exposed for signing up for per diem on the same days he was paid (illegally) for work as a public defender in Union County.

The complaint is also a can of worms. Capitol regulars believe some legislators have long followed a practice of turning up at meetings long enough to sign in and then departing. Some also believe logrolling sign-ins for other members, as reportedly under review in this matter, is not a singular event. Past efforts to pass rules that require per diem to be paid only to committee members or legislators with business before a committee would limit abuse, but have gone nowhere. Pop quizzes on meetings for which senators draw per diem is a nice idea, while I’m dreaming.

But this much is clear: Senators’ action in drawing per diem is a subject of public interest.

The meeting will be held in Room 309 beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The room is equipped for live streaming. As yet, there’s been no announcement that the two-day meeting will be live-streamed, as it should be. It’s not even clear as yet that the public will be allowed to attend. They should be.

There should be an agenda for the meeting. Documents related to the matter should be open to the public. Senators should not act like this is a state secret. They work for the public, not themselves. (At least in theory.)

Questions about this have been referred by Senate staff to the Bureau of Legislative Research. Why the Bureau is in charge of the meeting rather than Senate leadership is one of the questions I’ve posed to Marty Garrity, director of the bureau.

When I learn more, I’ll pass it along.

But to quote the slogan of the Washington Post: Democracy dies in darkness.


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