Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff, the former Jefferson County chief executive and Democratic state legislator who pleaded guilty last week to federal bribery charges, may also soon be under investigation for allegedly interfering with preparations for school elections last fall in violation of state law.
On Tuesday, the State Board of Election Commissioners sent a letter to Jefferson County GOP Chairman Peter Smykla notifying him that a complaint Smykla filed in October regarding Wilkins has been referred to the Jefferson County prosecutor.
The complaint alleged that Wilkins, as county judge, ordered the locks changed on the offices of the county board of election commissioners — the independent, bipartisan local body responsible for administering elections — thus restricting them from preparing for school board elections on September 19. The state board’s letter says Wilkins may have been aided by Lloyd Franklin, his chief of staff, and Efrem Elliott, who was hired by the county judge to act as an election coordinator:
Upon completion of its investigation, the Board found that the fundamental factual allegation that the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners (JCBEC) was excluded from their office was accurate. The SBEC investigation indicated that former County Judge Wilkins caused the locks to be changed on the county election facilities that housed election equipment and documents. He appears to have been assisted in this act by Mr. Elliott and Mr. Franklin. Based on the allegations, the effect of this act was to interfere with the JCBEC’s preparation for the Annual School Election. ACA 7-1-103(a)(20)(G) prohibits any person from interfering with an election official’s conduct of an election. The SBEC determined that preparing for an election is an essential component of conducting an election; therefore, the SBEC is referring this manner to the local prosecutor’s office.
Wilkins resigned his position as county judge in March, soon after news emerged that federal prosecutors had concluded he’d accepted bribes as a legislator.
The Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners has been a hotbed of partisan conflict in recent years. Until recently, one of its Republican members, Stu Soffer of White Hall, also sat on the state Board of Election Commissioners, which prompted a lawsuit from the attorney for the Democratic Party of Arkansas earlier this year. (The suit was based on a 2017 law — sponsored by a Democratic representative from Pine Bluff — which explicitly prohibited such dual service.) Soffer resigned from the state board in March but retained his seat on the local elections board.
Some details of the allegations regarding Wilkins are contained in this report compiled by staff for the state election commission:
The first factual allegation of this complaint is that on July 14, 2017, the County Judge ordered the locks on the building used by the JCBEC to be changed and denied them access to the building for five weeks. The complaint then alleges that on August 21, 2017, the judge gave the JCBEC access to the building but not all “administrative work areas” within the building. During this time, an election coordinator that Judge Wilkins had hired, but who was allegedly unwilling or unable to follow the direction of the JCBEC, had access to the entire building.
Also during this time, the JCBEC was allegedly denied access to their poll worker records and were forced to utilize an incomplete database to organize poll workers for the School Election. The JCBEC also held meetings in private buildings during this time due to their inability to access the county property designated for conducting election business.
On August 24th, the complaint explains that, with the approval of the county attorney, the JCBEC had the locks changed again so that now the commission had the keys to their building. This action is alleged to have allowed election clerk Julie Kendrick to access the JCBEC computers and phones to check the availability of potential poll workers and produce notifications and required information for those poll workers appointed to work in the school elections.
Two days later, Judge Wilkins and Mr. Franklin are alleged to have entered the election commission building with a locksmith service to once again change the locks to the secure room and administration office of this building. The result of this action was to once again exclude the JCBEC and its staff from these facilities. Images were filed with the complaint which allegedly show this event transpiring. In changing the locks, the Judge and his staff are said to have taken control and possession of the 150 iVotronic voting machines, the election reporting manager (ERM) computer, programmed election media, ballots, and various other items necessary to conduct the School Election. The door of the room containing those materials was labeled with a sign which stated only persons authorized by the election commission were to be permitted in the room where these items were stored. It is further alleged that Judge Wilkins permitted Mr. Franklin, county maintenance workers, and employees of a video surveillance company into the secure area where election media and machines were stored.