JEFF WARDLAW: D-G article explains ties to nursing home industry.

Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a fine article this morning from the murky depths of the Arkansas legislative swamp where lawmaking and corporate self-interest create a sludge impenetrably opaque to the casual observer. Let’s filter it a bit:

* Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, a Democratic turncoat Republican from Hermitage, has long been an owner of a medical supply company, Mallard Medical Supply. It sells a lot of stuff paid for by state-financed Medicaid. Conveniently, he chaired a committee that oversees health matters (nursing homes, for example) in the last legislature and sits on the powerful Legislative Council.

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* For a time, one of Wardlaw’s partner in the company was David Norsworthy, himself an investor in many nursing homes. Norsworthy remains under investigation for $80,000 he once put in the pocket of then-Sen. Jake Files, who was encountering financial difficulties despite stealing state grant money for his own use. Files is off to prison. Norsworthy has NOT been charged with wrongdoing. PS: Norsworthy was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to a term on the state commission that decides on nursing home permits.)

* Wardlaw recently sold his business to Michael Morton. Yes, that Michael Morton: Nursing home generalissimo of Arkansas, partner with Norsworthy in many enterprises, a generous supplier of campaign money to multiple judicial candidates. One of those candidates, Mike Maggio, is now doing a 10-year prison sentence for knocking $4.2 million off a verdict against a Morton nursing home not long after Morton agreed to push a bunch of money toward the judge’s campaign for Court of Appeals. Morton has NOT been charged with any wrongdoing.

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* After sale of his company, Wardlaw remained an employee of Michael Morton.

* This tangle of connections among a legislator, matters he votes on and his benefactors and business partners with legislative interests is not readily apparent in the inadequate ethical filings required of Arkansas legislators.

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* House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, who’s made few moves to encourage higher ethical standards in the House (unlike some cosmetic efforts in the Senate after years of neglecting crooks in that chamber) sounds reluctant to look askance at this. Quote in the D-G from Shepherd:

“This is a citizen Legislature, and members have business dealings and work for various entities and have different interests, personal and professional.

“I encourage my members to make sure they are handling everything appropriately, that they are making proper disclosures through [statements of financial interest], that they are doing everything to comply with the law.”

If only we had laws worthy of the name.

Have any laws been violated by the facts laid out by the Democrat-Gazette article? Have any required disclosures been overlooked? Does it even matter? This kind of logrolling stinks. And it raises yet again a familiar question:

How many other legislators are on payrolls or expense-reimbursement ledgers of private business interests that depend on state money or benevolent legislative regulation?  What other arrangements exist that are discoverable only by the long digging and cross-checking Besson did of multiple records? Aren’t some impossible to find? Attorney-client privilege protects legal retainer business, for example.

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The disclosure law is weak by design. Legislators know how ugly full transparency would look.

Here’s an important thing unsaid in this article: LOTS of people in the legislature and elsewhere knew that Wardlaw was making money off a business dependent on state money. Did any colleague ever bring it up in a committee meeting? Suggest he should recuse from certain issues? Propose greater disclosure standards?

It’s a familiar story. Everybody at the Capitol knew generally, if not specifically, about the felonious Jon Woods’ sketchy public/private machinations. They knew about the many public and private hats worn by the governor’s nephew, accused felon Jeremy Hutchinson. They knew about the stench emanating from General Improvement Fund handouts and had suspicions about accused felon/lobbyist Rusty Cranford. Even the honest are reluctant to speak out, because they need votes of saints and sinners alike. Heck, some even sent GIF money to projects of legal statewide benefit and expected nothing in return.

You might wonder, after reading today’s article, whether Wardlaw’s business affairs could be part of the sprawling and continuing Justice Department review of legislative and judicial activities. It so happens I put the question to Wardlaw earlier this month as news bubbled of interest in his business. I got a brief response:

Have you talked with federal investigators about connections between your private business and state matters, including other legislators?

I have not talked to the federal investigators.

OK then. All clear.

PS: You might remember Wardlaw’s role in holding the University of Arkansas budget hostage to help a colleague unhappy about the candidate chosen for a UA job.  What are legislative friends for, after all?