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Arkansas AG hopeful: Increase fines for ethics violations

September 17, 2018

Mike Lee, a Democrat running for attorney general in Arkansas, speaks at a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, about new regulations on lobbyists and other proposals he's calling for in response to corruption investigations involving former state lawmakers. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Democrat running for attorney general in Arkansas on Monday proposed increasing the fines for violating the state’s ethics laws and expanding what lobbyists must report in response to corruption probes that have involved several former lawmakers.

Mike Lee released a series of new campaign finance and lobbying restrictions he says he’ll push for in the Legislature next year if he’s elected attorney general. Lee is trying to unseat Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who was first elected to the office in 2014. Lee’s proposals follow a series of convictions, guilty pleas and indictments over the past year and a half in bribery cases that have included several former lawmakers and lobbyists. Former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a nephew of the state’s Republican governor, was charged last month with spending thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses.

“This is a chance for Arkansans to vote and send a signal to the lobbyists and the legislators in the state Capitol that the current era of corruption is coming to an end,” Lee said at a news conference at his campaign office.

Lee proposed increasing the maximum fine per ethics violation from $2,000 to $10,000 and said he’d advocate for increasing the staff and funding of the state’s Ethics Commission. The commission currently has nine staff members and an annual budget of about $800,000. He called for lobbyists to disclose in a new public database bills and amendments for which they are lobbying. Legislators would also be required to report meetings with lobbyists in a public database.

Lee also proposed that lobbyists be required to wear name tags inside the state Capitol.

Rutledge in June announced her office was forming a “public integrity” division and hiring two investigators to handle corruption cases involving public officials. Rutledge’s campaign touted the division’s creation, as well as her office’s work on Medicaid fraud cases.

“Attorney General Rutledge has dramatically increased the number of investigations and convictions against those who take advantage of taxpayers,” spokesman Josh Mesker said in an email.

Arkansas Democrats have seized on the corruption cases as a campaign issue as they face an uphill battle in the predominantly Republican state. Jared Henderson, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, has also called for additional resources for the state’s Ethics Commission along with other campaign finance changes.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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