According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, George Stobaugh told that newspaper last week that incoming Secretary of State Sharon Priest had agreed to keep him on the secretary of state’s payroll in exchange for campaign contributions, but that Priest reneged on the deal. A week earlier, Stobaugh told the Arkansas Times that there’d never been an agreement between him and Priest that he would keep his job.
Which George Stobaugh is to be believed?
Priest says it’s the one who said there was no agreement. She didn’t know why Stobaugh changed his story, but said she’d heard that outgoing Secretary of State Bill McCuen, whom Priest defeated, was behind the accusation made by Stobaugh, who is McCuen’s employee.
The truthfulness of Bill Phillips, a lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has been called into question also. When the Arkansas Times talked with Stobaugh, he suggested that a reporter talk with Phillips. Stobaugh said that Phillips and others had raised money for Priest and contributed it to her campaign in Stobaugh’s name, even though there was no commitment from Priest to retain Stobaugh. Phillips told the Times that he raised money for Priest, but had asked nothing from her in return.
Priest says that Phillips didn’t ask for or receive a promise that she’d keep Stobaugh on, but when contributions from Phillips and others totaling about $5,000 were delivered to her this month by Stobaugh, she began to suspect that a message came with it. She said she returned $1,300 in cash that was offered by Stobaugh and his wife, both because the amount exceeded the maximum legal cash contribution and because she’d already decided that she wouldn’t retain Stobaugh. Members of her transition staff had interviewed Stobaugh and recommended that he not be retained, she said.
Stobaugh then said the remainder of the contributions should be returned also, because they’d been made on his behalf, Priest said, but she replied that the other contributors would have to ask her for their money back themselves. A little later, a list of secretary of state’s employees who would not be retained by Priest was published in the Democrat-Gazette, and Stobaugh’s name was on it. Phillips then called and asked for the return of his $500 contribution, Priest said. He said he’d given the money to help a friend, and if it wasn’t going to do that, he could use it for his family, Priest said. She insisted that Phillips previously had placed no restrictions on his contributing to and raising money for her campaign. Phillips didn’t tell the Times that he’d asked for his money back.
None of the other contributors to the $5,000 has asked for his or her money back, Priest said, but she said a $250 contribution from former state Rep. Bruce Hawkins of Morrilton would be returned anyway. The Democrat-Gazette quoted Hawkins as saying that he contributed to Priest’s campaign on behalf of Stobaugh. Priest said that if that was Hawkins’ understanding, he should have his money back. “I don’t accept money under those conditions.”
Priest says that Phillips called during the campaign and asked for an appointment. She met him in his office. They discussed the campaign and campaign finances in general terms, she said. She said she didn’t hear from Phillips again until after Stobaugh delivered the $5,000 on Dec. 9.
Priest defended her meeting with Phillips, saying it occurred near the end of the campaign, a time when potential contributors are selecting the candidate they think will win, and that she made no promises. Priest said that if a situation like this arose in the future — something that might appear to be the offer of a bribe — she would report it to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.