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Speculation around secret Senate Ethics Committee meeting suggests per diem abuse

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A committee of state lawmakers adjudicating ethics complaints about two senators went immediately into executive session again today, so we don’t know much about what they’re up to. At least not officially.

The speculation around town, supported by rumor and innuendo but also by reporting from Gennie Diaz at For AR People, Mike Wickline at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and some of us here at the Arkansas Times, is that at least one senator might have been defrauding taxpayers by having another senator sign him in on the attendance sheet so he could claim payments for meetings he never attended.

Brian Chilson
Senators Mark Johnson and Jimmy Hickey watch proceedings of the Senate Ethics Committee on June 23, 2022.

Senators Alan Clark of Lonsdale, Mark Johnson of Ferndale and Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana are the senators who are not serving on the committee but have been present for these closed proceedings. Clark was there yesterday but not today. Johnson was initially at the meeting Wednesday but left when committee members went into executive session. Johnson remained for the executive session today. Hickey has been present both days.

Johnson usually sits on the Senate Ethics Committee, but has been temporarily replaced by Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville). Hickey has said he has not been accused of any ethics violations, so you can do the math here.

Other committee members present at Thursday’s meeting included Democrats Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff and Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, and Republicans Mat Pitsch of Fort Smith, Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, Kim Hammer of Benton and Missy Irvin of Mountain View, who Zoomed in from home.

Brian Chilson
Chairman Kim Hammer speaks briefly before calling an executive session.

More pertinent information for you sleuthers out there: Johnson lives close to Little Rock, so only gets to claim a $59 per diem for attending meetings. Clark gets the $155 rate for legislators who live at least 50 miles from the Capitol. Those figures could be significant in figuring out who (maybe) did what. I wish I could be more certain and clear here, but state senators aren’t talking.

In the brief public portion of the meeting before he called executive session, committee chair Sen. Hammer said today’s meeting would carry on through lunch, and that while there’s a chance they will make some sort of decision today and vote on it, they might not.

It’s possible, and even likely, that the taxpayers and voters of Arkansas will never know what went down in room 309 of the Capitol today. Should committee members decide to take no action, it’s likely no information will be disclosed. And even if the committee makes some sort of recommendation and sends it for a vote in the full state Senate (which they would have to do within 20 days, per their rules), it’s unclear what details will be shared. But I have a hunch that after all this attention put on possible abuse of their expense reimbursements, state lawmakers will be on better behavior in the future.

 

 

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