by Max Brantley
As promised, the Arkansas Republican Party has filed its lawsuit over free cars provided various state officials. The argument is that the cars, to the extent they are used for personal purposes, amount to income in excess of constitutional and statutory limits on pay.
It's clearly an arguable point and has been for decades, but the party saw opportunity this year with the huge amount of reporting the Democrat-Gazette has brought to the issue. Mike Huckabee, a Republican governor, enjoyed a similar income enhancement, for example, before his State Police Director Tom Mars dreamed up statutory cover by making it the lawful duty of State Police to provide security for the governor and thus be the chauffeur of the first family's vehicles.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel correctly declined to issue an opinion on the practice, expecting the legal action. He has himself given up the state vehicle once provided the attorney general. Ordinarily, he'd defend this suit, but he's been named as a defendant
plaintiff, though he no longer has a state car.
While we're getting all ethical, I'd urge the Republican Party to consider a searching look at whether inflated, unsupported expense claims by legislators might amount to unconstitutional income enhancements. Republican Mark Martin is by no means the only legislator whose practices could stand a closer look. It would be bipartisan sport.
The Democratic Party says the suit is baseless and hypocritical given Jim Keet's tax problems and Party Chair Doyle Webb's ethical failings as a lawyer. (See jump.)
REPUBLICAN NEWS RELEASE
A lawsuit regarding the personal use of state-owned vehicles was filed in the Circuit Court of Pulaski County today by State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb. The suit listed Arkansas’ seven constitutional officers and Speaker of the Arkansas House Robbie Wills as defendants for their alleged violation of Amendment 70 to the Arkansas Constitution.
Plaintiff for the suit is Johnny Rhoda of Van Buren County, citizen and Second District Chairman for the Republican Party. Webb is the present attorney.
Amendment 70 prohibits constitutional officers from receiving any additional income beyond their salary. In a press conference held over a week ago, Webb said he considers the personal use of state vehicles additional income or expenses.
“Amendment 70 must be enforced and our executive state officeholders must be held accountable for their unwillingness to resolve this error,” said Webb. “Ignoring the people of Arkansas while driving on their dime is unacceptable.”
Webb also noted Attorney General Dustin McDaniel declined on Friday to issue an official opinion on the personal use of state vehicles after receiving a request submitted by Republican State Senator Denny Altes in mid August.
“Who or what is McDaniel protecting? The “tradition and practice” of the old boy system in Arkansas?” asked Webb. “Attorney General Dustin McDaniel may have declined to issue an advisory opinion on state vehicles last week but his actions speak louder than words.”
Attorney General McDaniel surrendered his state vehicle in July and has said he would reimburse the state fully for his personal use. In a statement issued to the press, McDaniel said if constitutional officers report the use of a state vehicle as income on a tax return, they are in violation of Amendment 70.
“Why did McDaniel refuse to make his statement an official opinion?” asked Webb. “The Republican Party is prepared to fight for the people of this state to be represented honestly by their public officials. There is no room for entitlement in public service and there is no room for the old boy network in Arkansas state government.”
DEMOCRATIC PARTY NEWS RELEASE
After weeks of discussion, the Arkansas GOP filed its long-threatened lawsuit over state vehicles today. Just days ago, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a blistering editorial criticizing the Republican Party of Arkansas and Jim Keet for placing partisan politics above the issues and filing an unfounded, hypocritical and frivolous lawsuit. The newspaper called the actions by Jim Keet and state party chairman Doyle Webb “unfair” and “a little screwy.”
Jim Keet’s tax cheating schemes and Doyle Webb’s ethical problems have been well documented by the media. It was not long ago that Doyle Webb was fined by the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct for scamming an elderly widow who was likely in a diminished mental state. The scheme netted Webb $321,000.
"Ranting and raving and filling the docket with politically motivated, frivolous lawsuits won't create jobs or continue improvements in education in Arkansas," said Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Todd Turner. "But it will distract from the recent scandals and ethical lapses in which Doyle Webb and Jim Keet have engaged. Does Doyle Webb believe it’s acceptable to claim a homestead tax exemption in two different states? Does Jim Keet believe it’s acceptable for a lawyer to draft a will for his elderly client that names the lawyer as the primary beneficiary of her estate? Instead of clogging the dockets of Arkansas courts with baseless lawsuits, Jim Keet and Doyle Webb should concentrate on their own dealings."