Over the weekend, I mentioned receiving invitations to a couple of inaugural parties apart from those set for Gov. Asa Hutchinson — specifically hosted by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. UPDATE: My inquiry has resulted in a change of plans for Rutledge’s event.
In brief, I first talked to Graham Sloan, director of the state Ethics Commission about the practice of financing celebratory events for politicians. The last legislature cleaned up some questions about the soirees thrown at the end of legislative sessions for the House and Senate leaders. They had been the work of special interest lobbies. They still are, but now there’s an authorized money laundering scheme by which contributions are given to a political party (the Arkansas Republican Party in both cases) and then used for the events. The party discloses its donors, so there’s a degree of accountability.
But what about these parties? Sloane said he’d received no specific request for an opinion on either party. But here’s what I learned:
* Tim Griffin will use “carryover” campaign funds to pay for his party Tuesday at the Capital Hotel. “The reception will be paid for by Lt. Gov. Griffin’s carryover funds, and expenses will be reflected on the carryover report,” said Ben Gilmore of his staff. This is to be distinguished from “surplus” campaign funds, which must be distributed in specific ways — back to contributors, to a political party, to a recognized charity, for example. Carryover is the money a successful candidate may retain for a variety of uses, up to an amount equal to his or her annual salary (about $42,000 in the case of the lieutenant governor.) Sloan said, without specifically being asked about the Griffin event, said a social event to honor legislators on the occasion of inauguration likely would fall within the allowable uses of “carryover” money.
* My question to the attorney general’s office about who’s paying for Leslie Rutledge’s event has so far drawn only the response of a copy of the official invite to the reception at the Capital Hotel tonight. Rutledge is listed as extending the invitation. It says it is “hosted” by Arkansas First and Finest, a PAC created by Rutledge’s father Keith Rutledge in 2015. Its chair is now Cathy Lanier of Little Rock. Its biggest recent contributors are two tobacco companies.
I asked Lanier who was paying for the event.
“The PAC,” she said.
I explained that I’d been told by Sloan — again as a matter of general inquiry unrelated to the specific event — that PAC activities were limited to political activities and that he didn’t believe their money could be used for social events.
She declined to answer further
(a) Approved political action committee – As used in these rules, the term “approved political action committee” means any person who: (i) Receives contributions from one (1) or more persons in order to make contributions to candidates, campaign committees, ballot question committees, legislative question committees, political parties, county political party committees, or other political action committees; (ii) Does not accept any contribution or cumulative contributions in excess of five thousand dollars ($5,000) from any person in any calendar year; and (iii) Registers pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-215 prior to making contributions.
Rutledge is not a candidate currently. Otherwise, the PAC perhaps could claim an in-kind contribution to her by having her be the host of their party. It could also hold a party with a ticket fee to offset the expenses and retain overage for contributions to political candidates, committees and ballot question campaigns.
Can a PAC legally hold a free social event at which an elected official is the host? Can an elected official accept the favor from a PAC? Those would be questions for the state Ethics Commission to decide should someone choose to file a complaint.
If the attorney general’s office provides further insight
UPDATE: This just in from Rutledge’s spokeswoman Amanda Priest:
Max – To avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Attorney General will use carryover funds to cover the costs associated with this event.
Rutledge may carry over her salary, $136,000-plus, so she has some cushion for the expense.