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Tomfoolery at the Capitol, as the Senate Ethics Committee hides behind closed doors

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A meeting of the Senate Ethics Committee might be fascinating stuff today, but we’ll never know. Because the committee members quickly voted to go into a faux “executive session” to discuss two ethics complaints, the details and subjects of which have not been revealed.

Brian Chilson
Senators Mark Johnson, Alan Clark and Jimmy Hickey at the Senate Ethics Committee on June 22, 2022.

But one could make an educated guess, so here’s mine: Sens. Alan Clark, Mark Johnson and Jimmy Hickey were there, sitting in seats by the wall and not at the table with the other senators. As Max Brantley wrote yesterday and as is supported by reporting from Mike Wickline at the Democrat-Gazette, rumor has it that some absentee senators have been accused of having someone sign them into meetings so they can collect the $151 per diem payout they get for showing up. Who are the accusers, and who are the accused? That’s unclear.

And we might never know, depending on what the committee decides. If they make a recommendation, it will go to the full Senate for a vote within 20 days. But if they decide to not act at all, they likely won’t have to disclose anything.

Brian Chilson

And so, Sens. Stephanie Flowers, Dan Sullivan, Matt Pitsch, Kim Hammer, Clarke Tucker and David Wallace are sitting around a table in room 309 of the Capitol right now, talking about this mysterious topic. Sen. Missy Irvin was allowed to Zoom in for the meeting, much to Sen. Flowers’ chagrin. Had Flowers known that was an option, she said, she would have called it in, too.

Brian Chilson
Sen. Missy Irving

Executive sessions usually must fall within strict parameters: nobody but committee members can be in there, is the most important rule. That’s what our state Freedom of Information laws say, and that’s the guideline most public bodies in Arkansas follow. But Arkansas state lawmakers do what they want. And to be fair, their current interpretation of state law really does let them make it up as they go along.

In a jaw-dropping bastardization of what an executive session is meant to be, the senators allowed lawyers to stay in the room with them, along with some staffers. If they get to stay, why don’t members of the public? Maybe if lawmakers called this secret meeting to discuss something else it would be less egregious, but ethics complaints against elected officials who get paid with our tax dollars are a matter of public interest. Let’s hope more information will be forthcoming.

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