Late-night hijinks at the Capitol, grainy video, clandestine photos at the White Water Tavern, possible blackmail, baseless insinuation of a sex scandal, secret recordings and a strange meeting at a Krispy Kreme. The Republican primary race for state treasurer between Rep. Duncan Baird (R-Lowell) and Saline County Circuit Clerk Dennis Milligan has taken a turn for the bizarre. It’s perhaps fitting, since the office of treasurer was previously held by Martha Shoffner, who exited in disgrace after allegedly receiving cash bribes in a pie box.
Our saga begins during the special legislative session called last month. After adjourning in the evening of Oct. 17, Baird went out for dinner with fellow legislators and other friends at Doe’s, then went to White Water Tavern.
In the wee hours of the morning, the group — Baird along with Reps. John Burris (R-Harrison) and Micah Neal (R-Springdale), House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot), lobbyist and former state Republican official Katherine Vasilos (who is dating Burris), and an additional female friend of Vasilos — made a visit to the Capitol, which is a short walk from the apartments where many legislators stay while the General Assembly is in session. The visit took place roughly between 1:40 and 3 a.m.
According to a record of the visit from the State Capitol Police, the group wanted to go on the Capitol roof. Capitol Police Chief Darrell Hedden later reported to Secretary of State Mark Martin’s top aides, “[One of the officers on duty] told me he felt some of the individuals had possible issues of steadiness.” The officer told them that they’d had recent problems with the freight elevator and that he didn’t have a key with him to access the roof, so the group could not go to the roof.
Security video shows several members of the party walked around the interior of the building. Baird left about 2:25 a.m. Capitol Police said the remainder of the group left at 2:54 a.m.
In an initial note to Kelly Boyd of Martin’s staff at 6:45 a.m. that morning, Hedden commented, “The officers were told that Secretary Martin would be contacted to rectify this and they would return the next night for a trip to the roof.” He did not identify who reportedly said this. Boyd wrote back, “A roof tour is not a good idea at 1:30 a.m.”
At Boyd’s request, Hedden prepared a video of events, four segments of a minute or so each. They include shots as members of the group, some carrying plastic cups, drifted through the tunnel entry, in a hallway and walking outside northward in front of the Capitol. Other than the hour, there is nothing unusual about the group’s behavior. They walk around and talk, and do not appear unsteady on the video (you can watch the video at arktimes.com/domevideo). It’s hard to imagine what could be construed as scandalous for Baird, but his opponent Milligan apparently thought otherwise.
On Nov. 4, Jim Harris, a campaign aide to Milligan, made a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of the emails and video about “anyone attempting to gain access to the roof of the Capitol after normal business hours …”
Did someone at the Secretary of State’s office leak the information? “I have no idea where the leak came from,” Secretary of State spokesman Alex Reed said. He said that he had not known that the materials existed until he received the FOIA request from Harris. Reed acknowledged that as far as he knew, no one outside of the Secretary of State’s office would have had access to them. Milligan’s camp has been mum about who tipped them off.
In any case, the Milligan camp received the video snippets and emails on Nov. 6, and the following afternoon Milligan contacted Baird.
Baird recorded the phone conversation, as well as a follow-up meeting. Regarding his decision to keep a record of their exchanges, Baird said, “A review of Dennis Milligan’s history, as has been reported in the press, caused me to be concerned that he would seek to be aggressive and menacing in this campaign.”
“In politics, Duncan, we’ve all got our opponents,” Milligan told Baird over the phone. “But to take it a little worse, we all have our enemies. And apparently you’ve got some enemies out there. Because they’ve pushed some information in front of me that you need to see and you need to be aware of and it’s going to mean that we need to sit down and talk. Because there’s families involved, there’s people involved.”
Baird asked what kind of information Milligan was talking about. Milligan: “It’s some damaging … I’m not being coy with you but it’s something you and I need to look each other in the eye and sit down and evaluate and determine what’s going to happen. … You may not believe it but I’m actually trying to help you.” Milligan says they need to meet “somewhere out of the way. … West Little Rock or somewhere like that … I don’t want a place that I’m well known or you’re well known.”
They agreed to meet at a West Little Rock Krispy Kreme. Several sources close to the legislators involved told the Times that Milligan was wearing sunglasses at the meeting, which he kept on the entire time, and had a box of donuts. Baird declined to comment on what Milligan was wearing.
Milligan described the video snippets, which he said he had on a thumb drive, and showed Baird the emails regarding the Capitol visit, as well as photos taken of the group playing pool at the White Water Tavern earlier that evening.
Milligan briefly mentioned the accusation that someone told a security officer who didn’t allow them on the roof that Secretary of State Mark Martin would be called to “rectify this.” But his main focus was on the presence of “women that are not their wives.”
“There’s nothing that says there’s anything bad going on, but these ladies don’t look like they’re lobbyists,” Milligan said. “They look like someone that might be independent of the legislative process.” (Oddly, Vasilos, who Milligan often referred to as an “unidentified woman” in subsequent interviews and statements, is one of his Facebook friends; she served as communications director for the Republican Party of Arkansas from 2009 to 2012, just after Milligan left as chairman of the party.)
Milligan asked Baird what his wife would think. “Do you think that’s appropriate?” he asked. Baird responded that his wife would be “fine” with it, because nothing untoward happened. Milligan wasn’t having it.
“This involves several things,” Milligan said. “It involves you, it involves Davy Carter, it involves John Burris, who is the political director for Tom Cotton.” Milligan said that Johnny Allison and Randy Sims — Carter’s superiors at Centennial Bank where Carter is regional president — were holding a fundraiser for Milligan and “they’re gonna be advised of Mr. Carter’s actions.”
“Are you going to explain or let Davy explain to his wife?” Milligan asked. “You said your wife’s good with it. … You’re involved in other people’s lives, Duncan. … You’re going to say Burris is not married. Fair enough. I don’t think my wife would appreciate me at 2:30 in the morning at the Capitol with women that … are not a part … there’s nothing that smells good about this, Duncan.”
“It depends on what you think is going on there,” Baird said.
“It depends on what the public thinks is going on,” Milligan said. “As a party, this is going to be a bad story for our party. … You’re affecting Davy’s life, and three kids. You’re affecting potentially his job. You’re affecting Congressman Cotton. Lot of pressure. You want to throw them under the bus, that’s your business. But you said it’s OK with your wife?”
While giving him the hard sell, Milligan periodically says that it’s not he who will try to use the information against Baird if he stays in the race, but unnamed enemies (although at this point, the Milligan campaign were the only ones who had acquired the materials by FOIA). “Other people have said,” Milligan said. “Here’s the bottom line. You’re finding a new career, you’re not gonna run for state treasurer, OK? Unless you want to see this on the 7 o’clock news.”
Milligan closes the meeting by telling Baird, “If you call me within a couple of hours, we’ll find you something else to do.”
Leaving the Krispy Kreme, Baird wasn’t sure what to make of the meeting. “I felt threatened,” he said in an interview this week with the Times. “It felt like he was trying to push me out of the race, using this information that he called damaging, that he said affected several families in a very bad way, in a way to threaten me to get out of the race.” Baird didn’t think he had done anything scandalous and believed that for all of Milligan’s bluster, the materials Milligan had were innocuous. Baird spoke with Carter and Burris and decided to ignore Milligan.
Asked by the Times, Carter confirmed that Milligan called Carter’s boss Randy Sims that evening to tell Sims that he had video that he believed might be damaging to Carter’s reputation. Milligan called Sims again a few days later. Asked about these calls, Milligan sent a statement: “I don’t discuss or even confirm private conversations with friends and/or contributors.” Carter declined to comment for this story but confirmed that he is considering taking legal action against Milligan for slander.
Last week, the Times acquired the relevant videos and emails via an FOIA request and published them on the Arkansas Blog on Wednesday. Asked for comment, Milligan quickly issued a statement that “the voters will ultimately decide if Baird’s judgment and actions that night cause them enough concern to vote for him or not in the primary.” Milligan acknowledged the meeting with Baird but said he had not tried to pressure him out of the race.
On Thursday, the following day, Baird said Milligan wasn’t telling the truth and had in fact attempted to push him to drop out. “Rather than discuss issues,” Baird said, “Mr. Milligan wants to engage in political tricks and then be dishonest about it when challenged.”
Milligan fired back with a statement doubling down: “Any magician will tell you that you can’t deceive your audience unless you distract them. That is what Duncan Baird is trying to do now, turn the public and media’s attention to something that didn’t happen so people won’t look at what really happened that night at the state Capitol. The conversation between Duncan and I is hearsay. But, here’s what we do know. Baird and other legislators were video recorded going into the Capitol in the early morning hours with two women who were not their wives.”
On an appearance on Dave Elswick’s show on KARN, Milligan said, “I will put my hand on a Bible. They’ll say I am trying to blackmail him out of the race or I tried to blackmail him out of the race. Absolutely not.”
Milligan’s hearsay defense ended up having a short shelf life. That afternoon, Baird released the audio recordings of the phone call and the meeting with Milligan, which were published on the Arkansas Blog (you can listen at arktimes.com/KrispyKremeAudio).
On an afternoon appearance on another conservative radio show, the “Paul Harrell Program,” Milligan — who by that time knew that the recordings had been released — stuck with his story and claimed that he too had recorded their conversations. Harrell, who had not yet heard the recordings, took Milligan’s side in the first half of the show but once Milligan signed off and Harrell got an opportunity to read the transcripts, he did a 180. Conservative blogger Nic Horton, the next guest, had listened to the tapes, and argued that it certainly sounded as though Milligan was pressuring Baird to exit the race, albeit in veiled terms (Horton compared it to a mobster saying “nice restaurant you have, it would really be a shame if something happened to it”). Harrell, feeling he’d been had, apologized to his listeners. Harrell wasn’t alone — in the wake of the release of the audio recordings, dozens of Republican lawmakers and politicos took to social media to defend Baird, denounce Milligan, or both.
Harrell had Milligan back the following day and put him through the wringer, but Milligan continued to maintain that he had done nothing wrong and that it was Baird and company who should apologize for acting inappropriately (in recent media appearances, Milligan has focused more on the allegation that someone told the security guard they would contact Secretary of State Martin after being told they couldn’t go to the roof, though Milligan continues to mention “unidentified women”).
In a statement sent to the Times on Monday (Milligan’s camp has not responded to requests for a phone interview), Milligan said, “My opponent is using half-truths to deflect attention from his late night visit to the Capitol.” His core point is that he never said, “I want you out of the race” — instead it’s unnamed others who are the threat. For his part, Baird believes that the message from Milligan was clear.
Lurking under the surface of this silly scandal is an actual divide in the state Republican Party over the “private option” to expand health care in Arkansas. Milligan has tried to link the Capitol kerfuffle, if clumsily, with the controversial policy that was prominently backed by Carter, Burris and Baird. Milligan originally told the Times that he “met with Baird to let him know his questionable role in working hand-in-hand with Democrats to substitute state Rep. Terry Rice with Rep. Davy Carter as the first Republican Speaker of the House … and Baird’s efforts as the House floor leader in passing the ‘Private Option’ version of Obamacare have made Baird unpopular in some Republican circles.” In fact, once the recordings were released, it became clear that Milligan had not mentioned any of this to Baird. On media appearances in the last week, Milligan has consistently brought up Baird’s support for the “private option” when ostensibly discussing the scandal.
Other than a goofy drama to entertain local politicos, will this saga have any electoral consequences? Both candidates have suggested that the ordeal has exposed the other’s lack of integrity. Both, naturally, have said they want to get back to the issues. Given that the treasurer’s race is short on issues, that might be wishful thinking.
On a follow-up appearance on Elswick’s show this Monday, Milligan continued to say that he had done nothing wrong, but when goaded, acknowledged that he likely made a tactical political error. He closed by saying, “I want to apologize to the citizens of Arkansas” but didn’t mention what he was apologizing for.