According to the FBI, former Senator Jeremy Hutchinson said, “Everyone was doing it.” Maybe he was right.
Jeremy Hutchinson, who is the nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson, resigned from the Arkansas Senate in 2018 after being indicted by the federal government for a scheme to take campaign funds as personal income, prohibited by the state, and also not reporting it as income on his federal tax return. When interviewed by the FBI in 2014, Senator Jeremy Hutchinson’s response was, “Everyone was doing it.”
Not the best defense. Try using that line on a state trooper when you’re caught speeding and see if it gets you anywhere. It won’t.
Two questions came to mind.
- FIRST, was Senator Hutchinson correct in claiming others are using campaign funds for personal expenses, prohibited by Arkansas law? (Senator Paul Bookout resigned from the Senate because of it back in 2013 and later pled guilty, but we are focused on those serving when Hutchinson made the statement in 2014 or who are now serving.)
- SECOND, if the illegal practice is common, might legislators be trying to pass legislation to validate a prevalent but illegal practice?
We decided to look and, sure enough, we quickly found legislation filed this session to allow campaign funds to be used for additional personal expenses. We can’t say the bills were filed to validate an existing illegal practice, but we can say…. some legislators are trying to change the law to legitimize using campaign funds in a way that is now illegal.
DECEPTION AND GREED – SB258
Senate Bill 258 is being sold as legislation to “INCREASE THE PENALTY FOR TAKING CAMPAIGN FUNDS AS PERSONAL INCOME.” That sounds fine until you read the legislation and see that it’s actually about allowing politicians to grab campaign funds for personal expenses. The greed in the bill is HUGE!
SB258 is an example of the use of a deceptive title to make a bill sound restrictive while the body of the bill opens the door wider.
Let’s start with an example applying only to legislators. The bill would allow members of the Arkansas legislature to use campaign funds to pay for an apartment to stay in when in Little Rock, as long as the apartment is not the legislator’s primary residence. It would allow a legislator to use campaign funds to pay for an apartment all year long, every year.
It allows an expenditure by a:
“Member of the General Assembly concerning an apartment leased solely for use while in the capital so long as the apartment is not maintained as the primary personal residence of the officeholder and per diem is used to pay a proportional share of the cost incurred for rent and utilities in connection with maintaining the apartment.”
What is the per diem language about? Arkansas taxpayers already give a legislator $94 a day for lodging on any day the legislator signs into a legislative committee meeting, regardless of whether the legislator is on the committee or not. (It is a common practice among legislators who spend the night to sign into another legislative committee meeting before leaving town in order to get an additional $94, plus another $55 for meals.)
The bill acknowledges the receipt of taxpayer money while still letting legislators grab campaign funds for personal use to pay for a swell apartment in Little Rock. It is still an extremely greedy money grab, and it is still using campaign funds as personal income, no matter what they want to call it.
The apartment provision is only the beginning of the greed found in the legislation. The bill also gives any elected official huge exemptions to use campaign funds for “officeholder activities.” That could be nearly any expense.
There is NO good reason why campaign funds should be used as personal income by calling it “officeholder activities.” Looks like their philosophy is – “To the victor belongs the spoils.”
To get huge salary increases from the Independent Citizens Commission in 2015, the legislature agreed to eliminate officeholder expenses. This bill uses the back door to regain officeholder expenses from another source.
As if the exemptions in the bill weren’t already big enough to drive a truck through, another provision allows the Arkansas Ethics Commission to add exemptions. (You should note: Two of the five members of the commission are appointed by legislative officers. The other three members are appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.)
The bill gets even worse. The legislation flips the burden from the candidate or officeholder having to prove an exception, to the burden being on the person complaining to show the expense is not allowed. The person complaining has the task of showing the expenditure is “unrelated to a legitimate campaign or officeholder activity.”
And about that penalty. The penalty is the selling point of the bill (or the distraction). Yet, the penalty is only increased if the value of the campaign funds unlawfully taken for personal use is more than $5,000. The increased penalty doesn’t mean much when the bill actually lets officeholders use campaign funds for lots of personal uses.
Keep the lobbyists happy and an incumbent can amass a sizable war chest for the future (up to the salary of the office). Keep the lobbyist happy….. and raise enough campaign funds to get a plush apartment and pay for other personal expenses. Instead of letting politicians raid campaign funds for personal use, maybe the people should remove some of the temptation by slashing the amount of campaign funds that can be retained for future years.
Jeremy Hutchinson said, “Everyone was doing it.” Maybe he was right.
WHO ARE THE SPONSORS OF GREEDY SB258
In his speech to open this year’s Senate proceedings, the new leader of the Senate, President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren (R) – Gravette. said:
To all of us here today, the 92nd General Assembly, let us begin this session of the General Assembly today with a determination that the culture of greed and corruption is over. We will not participate in it. We will not ignore it, and we will not tolerate those who do.
The determination to end the culture of greed didn’t last long. Senator Jim Hendren is a cosponsor of the greedy SB258.
Senator Will Bond (D) – Little Rock is the lead sponsor. In addition to Hendren, the other two cosponsors are: Senator Bart Hester (R) – Cave Springs, and Senator Keith Ingram (D) – West Memphis.
These aren’t just any ole legislators. These are supposed to be leaders of the Senate!
- Senator Hendren – President Pro Tempore (Senate leader)
- Senator Hester – Majority Party Leader
- Senator Ingram -Minority Party Leader
- Senator Bond – Minority Party Whip
Isn’t it interesting Senator Hendren is a cosponsor, and it is his cousin, Jeremy Hutchinson, who is being prosecuted for taking campaign funds as personal income.
In his address to the Senate, Senator Hendren also said.
The change in culture will be led by those sitting here in these chairs this afternoon. It is made by changing our expectations and setting higher standards. It is made by holding ourselves and each other accountable. I know we can do it. I know we will do it.