Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette got there first on the financial information, but I received a response today from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office to questions related to her change in office advertising and the amount being spent on the new campaign.
The Arkansas Blog reported Tuesday that the new fiscal year, which began July 1, had brought a new look in the Rutledge Report, public service announcements that flooded the airways in the last fiscal year. The ads no longer use Rutledge, even for the voice over, and her name doesn’t appear. The first ad talked about child abuse.
We had reported previously that the office spent $1.7 million on the ads in the last fiscal year. The spending, particularly given the high profile of Rutledge in them, had drawn criticism from legislators and the public at large. I suspected correctly that her coming race for governor in 2022 had something to do with a change in look, to give potential opponents such as Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Sen. Jim Hendren less to criticize.
I had asked the office Tuesday about spending plans for this fiscal year, which began July 1.
I got this answer today. The office actually spent $2.2 million in fiscal 2020, more than I’d previously reported. This is because of an additional $511,000 booked in advertising toward the end of fiscal 2020. Spokeswoman Amanda Priest said most of the $511,856 paid to the Communications Group (see invoices here) for the new series of ads will cover ads running from July 1 through Dec. 31, 2020, but it will be accounted for as a fiscal 2020 expense. Will there be more spending in the following six months of the 2021 fiscal year? “I just don’t know,” she said.
She gave me this statement about the new look and new spending:
From last August, the public service announcements were placed on television as a necessary tool to reach Arkansans in every corner of the State and raise the public’s awareness on important issues just we do through yearly mobile office in all 75 counties and yearly roundtable meetings with the Attorney General in all 75 counties, numerous statewide and regional trainings as well as educational speeches by the Attorney General and staff around the State.
When COVID-19 struck Arkansas in March, additional spots were purchased to air the public service announcement on price gouging to ensure the Office reached every county of the State with the message while so many Arkansans were stuck at home. Next, the Attorney General aired two PSAs on child abuse and cyber crimes against children to address the tremendous concern of children not being in school and home all day with adults who do not love them as they should. Following those, the public service announcement dealt with opioid abuse and finally Medicaid and Social Security fraud. Arkansans had a resounding response with over 100 percent increase of calls to the Attorney General’s office from the same time last year. Specifically, in 2019, our Office received an average of 200-300 calls per week and since mid-March 2020, we now receive an astonishing 2,000-3,000 calls per week. Likewise, the emails received by the Office in the first half of 2020 equal the total number of emails received in all of 2019.
As the pandemic prolonged in April, an additional $510,000 was added to have the public service announcements run through the end of the calendar year to ensure Arkansans are aware of these critical issues and services of the Attorney General’s Office.
At no point has the purpose of the public service announcements changed. The Attorney General edited the public service announcements to remove her name, image and voice to ensure that the unfounded concerns of her political opponents would not prevent her from carrying out her responsibilities to protect and educate Arkansans on critical issues facing our State and services available to them. The Attorney General is hopeful that the effectiveness of the PSAs will not be lost with the changes. There is absolutely no need to legislate when a duly elected official can use his or her name in media, or any form of communication including business cards or stationary.