The Arkansas Ethics Commission today dismissed the complaint filed by Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell against Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The complaint alleged that Hutchinson violated state law by campaigning for a candidate for state office during normal office hours. Hutchinson did so repeatedly, including campaigning for Sen. Eddie Joe Williams on Feb. 29, apparently during usual office hours, which Campbell documented on his blog.
Here is the relevant 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.
Campbell, the Blue Hog Report blogger, filed similar complaints against Treasurer Dennis Milligan and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for campaigning in Iowa for Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidacy. These complaints were dismissed — the Ethics Commission said the state law barring campaigning during usual business hours explicitly exempted federal candidates. That left the question of state officials campaigning for state candidates, like Hutchinson did for Williams. While the statute in question has widely been ignored by elected officials in the past, it would seem at first glance that Hutchinson’s activities were in clear violation of the law.
UPDATE from Benji Hardy:
Graham Sloan, director of the Ethics Commission, has provided the letter notifying Hutchinson of the complaint’s dismissal. It cites a May 2002 decision of the commission, which stated the following:
On its face, Ark. Code Ann. § 7-1-103(a)(2)(A) prohibits a public servant from devoting time or labor to someone else’s campaign during usual office hours. It is the Commission’s opinion that this statutory provision serves to prohibit a public servant from diverting his or her energy from governmental business to campaigning during his or her normal working hours. The Commission concludes, however, that the prohibition does not apply to situations in which a public servant has taken vacation or other personal leave to devote time or labor to campaign activities.
In its letter today, the commission tells the governor:
Evidence gathered during the course of the investigation reflected that elected officials are not required to keep records of the time they work and that they do not actually accrue leave time. However, the evidence reflected that you notified your staff in advance that you would be out of the office on the day that you attended the campaign events for the reelection of State Senator Eddie Joe Williams. In addition, those events were placed on your office calendar as personal meetings.
The vote was 3-0, with one commissioner abstaining and one not present.
Matt Campbell is appealing the decision in Pulaski County Circuit Court. He already filed his appeal today after the morning hearing and drew Judge Wendell Griffen. Campbell said, “I started writing my appeal after looking at their initial investigative report” at the hearing and said the Ethics Commission proceedings were “a farce.”
Campbell said the 2002 opinion was flawed: only unpaid leave should qualify, he believes. But in any case, he argued, since there’s no mechanism for constitutional officers to take leave, it makes little sense to say the governor was actually on leave.