Some of the details will remain shrouded for a time in the lengthy state Ethics Commission review procedure, but the agency heard a staff report today that Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr had improperly spent more than $44,000 in campaign and public expense account money.
According to Matt Campbell, the Blue Hog Report blogger who brought the complaint and was present in the closed-door session when the staff report was presented, the staff found Darr had spent some $31,000 in campaign money on personal expenses, apparently ranging from personal travel to clothing and meals. He also received $6,000 in campaign contributions in excess of individual limits. And the staff, which admitted it did not go over his public expense account with the same “fine tooth comb” as Legislative Audit, found at least $6,000 in improper personal expenditures of public money (Audit found more than $9,000 improperly spent and several thousand more that it couldn’t explain, for some $12,000 in unjustified spending). Darr has said he will make restitution, but has yet to do so.
According to Campbell, Darr and his attorney Dan Greenberg did not contest the findings, which identified at least 12 statutes or rules Darr had violated, sometimes multiple times. According to Campbell, Darr issued an apology to the people of Arkansas, said he would make restitution and thanked Campbell for bringing the complaint. In the earlier finding by Legislative Audit, Darr said he didn’t understand the law prevented him from charging the state for using public money to commute to work in Little Rock from his home in Springdale. This violation presents tax law problems for Darr if he did not report that money as income. The Ethics Commission staff also reported that Darr had improperly used a staff member to chauffeur him on one trip to Little Rock.
Darr and Greenberg walked quickly to a car driven by Greenberg after they left the closed meeting. He said little to reporters trailing him. I asked if he would resign. He said, “No.” When I asked him whether misuse of public money merited resignation, he didn’t respond.
Campbell told reporters afterward that, if the Ethics Commission ratifies the finding of its staff, the precedent would seem to say that Darr should resign and that a special prosecutor should review law violations the commission may find. Republicans were quick to call for the resignation of Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro after the Ethics Commission found he had violated the law by use of campaign money for thousands in personal expenditures. He did so within days of the conclusion of his ethics review with findings of multiple violations. The Ethics Commission has only civil authority, though violations of statutes it enforces can be judged criminal misdemeanors. A special prosecutor is reviewing Bookout’s use of campaign money. Misuse of public money can be a more serious crime. The Audit findings have been referred to the Pulaski prosecuting attorney.
Darr said he would have a statement later.
It should be interesting. It will be interesting, too, to see if GOP Chair Doyle Webb, who once sued Democratic state officers over personal use of state cars, will be so forgiving of misuse of public and campaign money by a Republican officeholder.
There was no final Ethics Commission action today. The Commission could have convened in public and voted to find the staff findings without merit and dismissed the complaint. Because it did not, it means the Commission will continue to deliberate in private on whether there’s probable cause to find a violation by Darr and, if there is, to offer him a settlement, typically including a small fine and letter of caution or reprimand. If Darr accepts that finding, the matter is concluded and the results are made public. A respondent can ask for a public hearing if he disputes the commission’s finding.
William Bird, Darr’s appointee to the commission and a fellow OBU alum, recused from considering Darr’s case.
After the Darr matter was concluded, the Commission took up a complaint against Hudson Hallum, the former Democratic state representative who resigned after pleading guilty to conspiring to buy votes in his last election. Hallum told me in a hallway chat that he did not have to be present, but planned to admit the violations found by the commission staff, ranging from inadequate reporting of contributors and expenses to, more seriously, taking of a personal loan for his campaign. He said the allegations were correct, that he’d filed amended reports to address most of them and that he’d personally made repayment on contested loans. He said he had no excuses to make and wanted to put the matter behind him. He did say he had operated after the scandal broke with the misunderstanding that his guilty plea to a federal charge would serve to cover some of the ethics issues. But he said he’d come to understand that was a civil matter and properly considered separately. He said he continues to operate an ambulance service.
PS — I should have noted, as some press accounts have not, that Campbell filed the initial complaint on Darr, getting in ahead of Darr’s effort to pull a Jeremy Hutchinson, who got a hurry up resolution of a self-complaint with a minimum of investigation of spending of campaign money by his girlfriend.