Circuit Judge Chris Piazza Tuesday tied up a loose end in Mike Wilson’s lawsuit that successfully challenged the legislature’s unconstitutional use of state surplus for local pork-barrel projects by funneling it through local economic development districts.
He ruled that almost $1 million not yet spent from the legislative slush fund must be returned to the state, but $323,267 of that will go to pay Wilson’s attorney, John Ogles of Jacksonville, who handled the illegal exaction suit. Ogles work turned up, among others, all manner of dubious expenditures controlled by politicians in the name of “economic development,” including unaudited Christmas dinner handouts, warmups for a high school team, a fireworks show and much, much more.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled (overturning a finding by Piazza) that the program was unconstitutional because it violated a prohibition against the legislative use of state money for local expenditures. But the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, sued by Wilson, hadn’t yet finished dispersing the money legislators in its district had planned to divide up. Millions more in the money is long gone and won’t be recovered.
Piazza ruled after a hearing Tuesday that the money could not be spent for projects designated by legislators. John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette details the hearing.
You might wonder about the recent controversy over whether the state can be sued. The Arkansas Supreme Court has already upheld a Piazza order that the state must pay legal costs (filing fees and the like) in the lawsuit. This is the third time Wilson has successfully gone after the legislature for different versions of schemes to direct money to local projects.
Wilson is a former legislator himself and once even managed to overturn a scheme that sent some money to a local library in a system then run by his brother-in-law. There are some honest people in public life in Arkansas.
The General Improvement Fund money, or pork barrel slush fund, has figured in criminal charges — so far — against four legislators. Three have pleaded guilty, former Sen. Jake Files and former Reps. Micah Neal and Eddie Cooper. All found ways to put some of the money in their own pockets. A trial is scheduled for Sen. Jon Woods, who also allegedly pocketed kickbacks from money he directed to a Christian college in Springdale. Others have been indicted in the schemes, including a formerly powerful lobbyist for a health services agencies that