Matt Campbell, the Blue Hog Report blogger and Little Rock lawyer, has been notified that the state Ethics Commission will hold a probable cause hearing on his ethics complaint against on-the-job campaigning by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The Ethics Commission earlier dismissed a complaint Campbell had filed against Treasurer Dennis Milligan and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for campaigning in Iowa for Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidacy. The Ethics Commission said the state law barring campaigning during usual business hours explicitly exempted federal candidates.
But that left the question of state officials campaigning for STATE candidates. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has done that repeatedly. Campbell complained, specifically over his appearance for Sen. Eddie Joe Williams. This occurred AFTER the governor had had a telephone discussion with Campbell about the law. Campbell includes a recording of his chat with Hutchinson in which the governor seems to express a feeling of unfairness that he should be singled out when previous governors have done the same. Two wrongs don’t make a right, governor. The law:
It shall be unlawful for any public servant, as defined in § 21-8-402, to devote any time or labor during usual office hours toward the campaign of any other candidate for office or for the nomination to any office.
Violation of the law can bring a fine from the Ethics Commission. It also may be prosecuted as a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The Ethics Commission has not dismissed the complaint. It has set a hearing at 9 a.m. Friday to decide whether probable cause exists for a finding “that Asa Hutchinson violated Ark. Code Ann. § 7-l-103(a)(2)(A)(i) in his capacity as Governor by devoting any time or labor during usual office hours toward the campaign of any other candidate for office in connection with appearing at two campaign events in support of State Senator Eddie Joe Williams on or about Monday, February 29, 2016.” Should it find probable cause, the governor could enter a negotiation over a resolution or he could challenge the finding and ask for a public hearing. The hearing Friday will be closed except to the governor, his attorney, and Campbell.
This is a significant step. It means the complaint was not dismissed out of hand, as can happen. And it now puts the Republican-controlled commission in a spot. It’s true that this statute has been widely ignored by elected officials, including, perhaps, when they appear in political ways for themselves during election season office hours. But if the plain words of the statutes don’t have meaning, why have statutes at all.
As Campbell himself has noted, perhaps the law needs to be changed. But the Ethics Commission must consider the law as it is, not how it should be.
It’s a little embarrassing that Gov. Hutchinson’s night on national TV will likely include some color commentator about an ethics complaint over his campaigning on state time for other candidates. The speech for Donald Trump is perfectly legal, however.
UPDATE: The governor’s spokesperson, J.R. Davis, offered a statement:
“We believe the complaint is without merit because a governor by both tradition and constitutional right does not abandon his or her rights to campaign just because they are elected.”