The Arkansas Republican Party today said it would file a lawsuit and ethics complaint over the arrangement by which state Rep. Nate Steel, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, contracts to do city attorney work for the city of Nashville. It looks like more of a political than a substantial legal ploy.
The Arkansas Times wasn’t invited to the news conference so I only have the GOP release to work from. It seems to allege a constitutional violation of dual office holding and claims that the city attorney also must file financial disclosure with the city clerk that Steel has not filed.
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Steel’s campaign is working on a formal response, but a spokesman indicated that Steel works under a contract to provide legal services to the city of Nashville. He is not an elected or appointed city official. She said the Municipal League’s legal staff reviewed the arrangement before Steel began it and said it was appropriate.
More to come. The suit, of course, won’t be heard until after the election. The GOP chair said Steel had received payments for three years. Coincidentally, he’s in an election Nov. 4 with a recently battered Republican candidate, Leslie Rutledge, for attorney general.
The GOP release:
RPA Chairman Doyle Webb announced in a press conference this morning that he was filing a lawsuit against Nate Steel for Illegal Exaction. Chairman Webb also filed an ethics complaint this morning against Nate Steel for failing to file financial disclosures in his role as City Attorney of Nashville.
“We believe Nate Steel is in violation of the Arkansas Constitution and has been caught with his hand both in the cookie jar of the City of Nashville and the State of Arkansas,” said Chairman Webb. “An opinion by Attorney General Mark Pryor, 2002-209, clearly established that it is illegal to hold both the office of City Attorney and serve in the State Legislature. For this I am filing a lawsuit against George Nathan Steel for illegal exaction, for receiving funds from both the treasury of Arkansas and the city of Nashville for nearly 3 years.”
“We also filed an ethics complaint this morning against Nate Steel for his failure to file financial disclosures with the City Clerk of Nashville pertaining to his office of City Attorney.”
Attorney general opinions are not binding law. But here’s one from 2002 that finds a prohibition against legislators being appointed or elected to the office of city attorney or other civil office. What is a civil office? The opinion says:
`An office is a public station or employment, conferred by the appointment of government, and embraces the ideas of tenure, duration, emolument, and duties.’
The opinion also quotes an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling:
Early on, we cited with approval a definition of “civil office” offered by the Iowa Supreme Court: “A civil office is a grant and possession of the sovereign power.” Wood v. Miller, 154 Ark. at 322-323, 242 S.W. at 575, citing State v. Spaulding, 72 N.W. 288 (Iowa 1897). Sovereign power is the authority of the State to act. Black’s Law Dictionary 1396 (6th ed. 1990). Later, we wrote that a civil office is “an office created by civil law within one of the only three branches of government provided for under the present Constitution of this state.”
Clear? There’s more. But there still seems to be some question here whether Steel was appointed to an office or merely holds a contract for hire. Maybe Webb could get another opinion from one of the Secretary of State’s top deputies, AJ Kelly, who does city attorney work for Fairfield Bay.
UPDATE: Steel’s response:
“This lawsuit filed against me and my hometown is frivolous and I have no doubt it will be dismissed. However, nothing will likely happen until after Election Day, which highlights the fact that this is a political stunt.
It is clear that this has been filed in an attempt to distract from my opponent’s imploding campaign. The fact that it is filed 20 days before the election, and before the FOI responses have even been fulfilled, clearly shows that my opponent and her supporters know that the momentum in this race is in our favor.
Any examination of my personnel file clearly shows I have done nothing wrong. The irony lies in the fact that Ms. Rutledge has been asked a number of times to release her personnel file from DHS explaining the alleged “gross misconduct” she committed while there, and she continues to refuse.”
I wanted more of a legal response and got it from Steel. He said there’s a statute that allows cities with populations of less than 5,000 to contract for legal services. He said he knew he couldn’t hold the city office, but the city contacted the Municipal League and was informed that the statute provided for contracts for legal services outside actually holding the office. He said all this was discussed by the City Council when it decided to hire his firm — not just Steel but also his father — to do legal work. He said other legislators have held similar contracts and that’s been addressed in opinions Webb chose not to mention. He also noted that Webb announced a lawsuit before he received the city’s response to an FOI that said it was acting under a specific statute. The contract specifically says Steel does legal work for the city without holding the office.