by Max Brantley
A new wrinkle in former Game and Fish Comissioner Sheffield Nelson's legal battle against the Commission's governance and his criticism of recent efforts to limit information the agency releases under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Commission has gone on the attack against Nelson. The release is on the jump, but the nub of it is that Nelson's lawsuit argues that the Commission should abide by the Administrative Procedures Act in making rules changes. When he was a commissioner, the release said, Nelson himself tried to avoid the Administrative Procedures Act.
Of course, Nelson could be a world-class hypocrite and still be correct in his current lawsuit. Interesting tactic. It would seem to derive from the Commission's recent decision to bring in outside public relations help as well as outside legal help on the lawsuit.
Correction: Contrary to what I originally wrote, I now see Commissioner Rick Watkins said the commission had asked legal counsel to review records for Nelson's past actions. He would appear to be the driving force behind the counter-attack. I'm told that Martin-Wilbourn Partners have been engaged to help the Commission with public relations.
UPDATE: Nelson's attorney, Don Eilbott, responds in an e-mail reprinted in full following the Commission news release. He said documents had been gathered at his request and he takes exception to the news release's interpretation of them. This is all a little head-scratching, to tell the truth.
GAME AND FISH NEWS RELEASE
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission today released historical commission documents that show former commission Chairman Sheffield Nelson was involved in efforts to adopt new administrative procedures when he served at the agency. Nelson has filed suit against the commission claiming its attempts to alter the state rules are illegal.
While serving on the commission, Nelson was advised of a July 6, 2000, opinion from then-Attorney General Mark Pryor that the rule-making provisions of the Arkansas Administrative Procedure Act (AAPA) could not be constitutionally applied to the Game and Fish Commission.
Nelson served on the commission from 2000-2007 and was chairman from 2006-2007.
During his tenure, Nelson encouraged the commission’s legal staff to prepare agency procedures that would replace the AAPA.
In public comments, Nelson has said he would not have supported and was not involved in any attempts to alter AAPA while he served on the commission.
“After Sheffield Nelson filed his suit, the commission asked our legal staff to research Nelson’s role in discussions regarding the development of administrative procedures at the commission,” said Commissioner Rick Watkins. “The conclusion of that review shows that Nelson is attacking the commission today for the very same thing he attempted to do while he served on the commission. It’s time he becomes accountable for his actions and tells the truth to the people of Arkansas.”
Nelson has criticized the commission for “an arrogant and total failure” to comply with the law related to the AAPA. Yet he has not fully disclosed that as a Game and Fish commissioner he was involved in discussions, beginning in July 2000, about the agency developing its own administrative procedures.
The historical documents show that Nelson was at the commission meetings and participated in discussions related to the commission developing its own administrative procedures. Documents also show that Nelson praised the commission’s staff several times for its work.
“Mr. Nelson’s public position is just not in line with the facts,” said Jim Goodhart, chief counsel for the commission who served in the same role during Nelson’s tenure on the commission. “Mr. Nelson was aware of and encouraged our efforts to develop administrative procedures for the commission. He had several conversations with me personally directing me and my staff to move ahead and develop new procedures.”
The commission released the records today in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Nelson’s attorney, who asked for a history of discussions related to the Administrative Procedure Act and FOIA.
The Game and Fish Commission in June 2010 enhanced its governance policy to create a more open and transparent committee system to improve operations. Nelson filed suit in September 2010, claiming that policy violated the AAPA.
In the Nelson lawsuit, the commission is represented by Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow of Little Rock.
FROM DON EILBOTT
I went to AGFC today and reviewed the materials in question.
First let me note that the material provided today was provided only after a second request by me. The initial request was made and a response was filed and I reviewed those materials. They appeared to me to be incomplete. I therefore made a "good faith request" to AGFC to again review their records. I received a second response that approximately 400 additional pages had been "located". Those are the documents I reviewed today.
My review of the documents does not agree with the press release from AGFC. All of the commission members were advised in the normal commission reports from Mr. Goodhart of the 2000 opinion from AG Mark Pryor.
I note that there is a statement; "After Sheffield Nelson filed his suit, the commission asked our legal staff to research Nelson’s role in discussions regarding the development of administrative procedures at the commission,”.
If that was done then I do not understand why those documents were not ready for response initially.
I have reviewed the press releases archived on the AGFC website. This is the first one I have seen of this nature. I know that the AGFC recently approved a contract with a marketing and communications firm. Perhaps this is their first work product.