To date, I’d remained relatively unemotional about the overlapping corruption scandals that have permeated the Arkansas legislature and have slowly been brought to light by prosecutors. I was fascinated that folks smart enough to have political success were hubristic enough to think that they could get away with such shenanigans while also leaving such a trail of evidence of their guilt behind. I spent hours studying the connections across the interconnected transgressions, was captivated by the personalities of those involved (especially lobbyist Rusty Cranford), and was astounded by the lack of governmental oversight that allowed such an array of offenses to occur. And I was thoroughly curious about the effect of the scandals on the upcoming state elections as well as the votes on ballot measures where legislative power is at issue. But, being a good political scientist, I was very much in analytical mode about the events and their impact.
Then, Sunday morning’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette arrived on my front stoop. A story on the front page recounted a series of loans among members of the General Assembly. Among them was a loan of $16,000 in the fall of 2016 by Rep. Joe Jett (R-Success) to incoming Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) to cover financial shortfalls facing Gillam’s berry farm and payments by other legislators to colleagues to cover overdue tax payments. Jett, a Democrat when the loan was made but about to switch parties the following month, was named chairman of the potent Revenue and Taxation Committee in early 2017 by Gillam. Because there was no explicit quid pro quo between Jett and Gillam, what was reported in Michael Wickline’s excellent piece in Sunday’s newspaper was not criminal. But it was corruption.
Moreover, Jett’s response to the story showed just how casual that corruption among those presently in elective office in the state is. Later Sunday morning, Jett responded to the Wickline article on Twitter, writing: “I’m saddened and disheartened by this newspaper taking a story of friendship and goodwill to a place where it cast doubts on peoples good and honorable intentions. The fact remains, just because a person is a legislator does not preclude him of the obligation of being a friend.”
I understand, and get, the fact that those who serve together in the state legislature become brothers and sisters in service. Because few others fully understand their experiences, they are bonded to their colleagues and become good friends. Despite this, when one is in public office, he or she is a public servant first and foremost. That role should trump all others, particularly in interactions with a colleague making decisions about whether or not you gain a position of power or whether or not legislation one cares about becomes law. This obliviousness by Jett and others who casually discussed their actions in the article moved me to my boiling point regarding the degree to which a culture of corruption has come to thoroughly permeate state government.
I realized just how emotionally engaged I was in the shamefulness of the behavior by those who have been entrusted by the people of Arkansas when the findings of the special master examining the sufficiency of the petition signatures on Issue 3 — the proposed term limits amendment — were announced Monday. Circuit Judge Mark Hewett, the special master in the case, found that nearly 15,000 of the signatures counted by the secretary of state should not have been counted because of discrepancies in compliance with rigid state laws covering the work of paid canvassers. This would leave the measure several thousand signatures short of making the November ballot if the Supreme Court affirms Hewett’s findings.
While I truly detest term limits as a lazy and ham-handed solution to the need for incumbents to be voted out of office and, out of principle, I probably could not have conjured the will to vote for Issue 3. But, when the announcement of the Hewett findings were announced, I still felt deflated by the probability that those who have been direct and indirect parties to the culture of corruption might not pay a price for their violations.
In the words of a man whom I rarely quote, it’s time to drain the swamp.