AD DEFENDERS: Cory Cox and Debra Hope of the attorney general’s staff.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office defended her office’s expenditure of $1.7 million it is spending this year on advertising featuring her talking about child abuse, opioid, price gouging and other topics.

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She had one defender in Sen. Jason Rapert, who suggested erroneously that other attorneys general had spent more.

Sen. Kim Hammer wanted details on whether the advertising was effective. Her chief of staff, Cory Cox, contended it had been, citing a dramatic rise in consumer calls since the coronavirus crisis developed in March. Much of the money was committed to advertising before then, however.

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Sen. Missy Irvin established through a line of questions that there’s essentially no limit in law on how the office spends money it receives in court settlements, if not otherwise directed by a court. A relatively new law caps the consumer education fund at $1 million, but only at any one time. Other money in excess is placed in a “clearing” account that is used to replenish the consumer fund and also to send money to other purposes, some of general state benefit. But it is all at the call of the attorney general.

Hammer said the office seemed to be at a “high water mark” in advertising spending. He wondered if any court had ordered money to be spent on advertising.

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Cox answered by saying call volume had doubled in March and April, to more than 9,000 each month, compared with last year because of the “extraordinary public health crisis.” He said when emergencies happen, “bad guys step up and try to take advantage of consumers.”

He said advertising gets the word out. “We think it paid off,” Cox said.

Hammer said he still wanted a breakdown of how many calls were strictly related to coronavirus issues and an answer on court-ordered advertising.

Sen. Jason Rapert rose in Rutledge’s defense. He said he remembered “far more” being spent by others. He also questioned what authority the legislature had over the attorney general’s spending. None is the answer.

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He’s wrong about comparative spending.

The Rutledge office compiled those figures months ago. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel spent an average of $228,000 a year in his eight years with a top of $459,200.

As we reported earlier, Rutledge plans to spend $1.7 million in the year ending June 30 on advertising that features her. About $1.1 million will be spent between Jan. and March. That leaves an overage over the most McDaniel spent in any one year.

Here’s a response to my FOI on the spending. You can see hundreds of thousands were spent months before coronavirus came along.

How the money was spent in fiscal 2020; invoices from the Communications Group.

Sen. Missy Irvin noted that the consumer education fund is supposed to be limited to $1 million. But she said it “looks like you replenish it.” Do you ask the legislature for that authority, she asked. Or is it unlimited?

Cox said the law merely limits the consumer fund to $1 million at “any one time,” but there is no appropriation, just a statutory limit on what can be in the fund.  Sometimes the office receives larger settlements and it doesn’t ask a judge to reduce them because there’s a limit on the fund. It puts the money in the clearing account and spends it as Rutledge directs when needed.

Other agencies do ask for legislative authority, Irvin noted. But Cox said, “These are settlement dollars.” They don’t go through the normal budget process.  “The short answer is y’all never tried to appropriate that money.”

The 2019 legislature did address settlement money, but all it did was set the limit of $1 million on the consumer fund but said nothing about how the account may be replenished. Sometimes a court does direct spending, say in a refund to consumers.

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In short, the attorney general controls millions with no direct oversight.

Cox said there’s a judge in Little Rock who orders that settlements go to the legislature. It sounds like a good idea.

Otherwise, the money goes into a clearing account and the office spends it in 120 days. It’s all mixed up with a lot of other funds, Cox said. “It’s us trying to live with what the courts telling us to do.” Bond said the fund has about $3 million currently unobligated and something should be done with it “in a time of crisis.”

SEN. JIMMY HICKEY: It’s about the promotion of the officeholder.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey said this spending has been an issue in the past, currently, and will be in the future until the legislature deals with it. Hickey said it was time to stop beating around the bush. “This isn’t about promoting the issues or promoting the office of the attorney general. The issue is about promoting the individual within that office.”

The way to fix this, Hickey said, is that “we make it generic in nature.” If a judge says the state must spend money on consumer education, “that’s fine.” But he suggested a generic appeal, a call to a 1-800 number for example, not something built around the officeholder.

“Do you think that’s an appropriate path for us to take?” Hickey asked Cox.

Cox responded: “Without talking to my boss I’m not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole, sir.” He said he’d be glad to talk with legislators on “any legislation you’d like to propose.”

Rep. LeAnne Burch said Hickey “touched on what we’re all thinking.” She also asked about how the office decides where advertising goes. Rep. Austin McCollum asked him if the office had a figure on a return on investment in the advertising. Cox said that takes a long time to figure because it might some time before a complaint that spurred action came to fruition,