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The Arkansas Ethics Commission has concluded that an event hosted by lobbyists to which certain types of people are invited would not fit the definition of one for the "general public," and therefore wouldn't be allowed to provide food and drink to state lawmakers.

The commission made that conclusion in an advisory opinion requested by Robert Coon, managing partner of the Impact Management Group of Little Rock. The firm is a lobbying, public opinion, public affairs and political consulting firm with offices in Arkansas and Louisiana. Its other partners include Richard Bearden, Terry Benham and Scott Pace, according to its website.

Many of the firm's principals and staff are registered lobbyists and are thus prohibited from providing gifts to public officials.

Coon said Monday that Impact Management Group plans to commemorate its 20th anniversary on March 18 at the Capital Hotel. It will be a planned activity at which invitees -- including state lawmakers -- are provided food and drink as allowed under the Arkansas Constitution. They won't be the only ones invited.

"Invitations will go out soon to our friends, family members, clients and defined governmental bodies as allowed by law," he said. Coon's request to the commission for an advisory opinion also said other invitees would be former clients, business associates and public officials and the event would be at no cost to invitees.

The firm has begun the process of obtaining approval to designate the anniversary event as a "planned activity" for a defined governmental body, including the Arkansas General Assembly, Coon said in his request to the commission.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

"In designating this event as a 'planned activity,' however, IMG would be limited to a small handful of potential dates available on the House and Senate social calendars," Coon wrote.

As an alternative to designating the event as a planned activity under the constitution's Article 19, Section 30, Impact Management Group asked if the event could be considered an exception to the definition of "gift" found in the same section for "[anything] that is readily available to the general public at no cost," the commission said.

Impact Management Group asked whether this type of event would be considered by the commission to be "readily available to the general public," considering the various types of invitees, according to the commission.

"If yes, IMG would also like to know if that also means public officials could attend the event" under the Section 30 exception to the definition of gift, the commission said.

The commission said, "[It] is the commission's opinion that the Article 19, Section 30 (b) (2) (B) [iv] exception to the definition of 'gift' would not apply to an event at which invitations were issued to friends, family members, clients, former clients and business associates only.

"Such a gathering would fall short of an event that is 'readily available to the general public,'" according to the commission. "In order for such an event to be 'readily available to the general public,' the 'general public' would have to be made aware of the event's existence."

While an invitation-only event would not meet the exception, it would be possible for Impact Management Group to take actions that would allow the event to fit to be an exception, the commission said.

"As Mr. Coon suggests in the request IMG could make an announcement of the event on widely-used social media platforms and through traditional media to make the 'general public' aware that the event is not limited to invitees," the commission said. "While an announcement on IMG's website could be interpreted as evidence that IMG intends the event to be open to the public, visitors to the website likely fall into the categories of persons to which the company would send invitations rather than the 'general public,' so that action alone would not cause the event to meet the exception.

"An announcement through traditional media would need to be made through a platform that would make it likely to be seen by the 'general public,' such as a notice in a statewide newspaper, or ads on television or radio stations with a wide viewer or listener audience. An additional factor signaling that IMG intends the event to be 'readily available to general public at no cost' would be to hold the event at a venue which is open to the public, such as a park or a convention center," the commission said.

In response, Coon said the firm appreciated the response and that "upholding the highest standard of ethical conduct is fundamental to everyone on our team, and is a value that we are fully committed to as a company. ...

"Our objective in making this request was to bring additional clarity to what we perceived as an ambiguity in the rules, so that our 20th anniversary event was in full compliance with both the letter, and the spirit, of the Arkansas Constitution."

Metro on 02/19/2019

Print Headline: Panel: No food, drink for Arkansas legislators at event

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