by Max Brantley
Why? A fine story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning (pay wall) reported that state Court of Appeals Chief Deputy Lynda Boone confirmed that state Rep. Denny Altes, a Fort Smith Republican, had told her he was a legislator and would "hold somebody's budget up" if the state's unemployment benefit system wasn't "fixed." Altes' son's business has an unemployment benefit contest pending before the state Court of Appeals.
It's inappropriate beyond measure. If we had a state Ethics Commission worth its salt, it would begin investigating immediately a report that a legislator had attempted to use his office for family gain. But that's in another universe, unlike Arkansas.
Meanwhile, Rep. John Burris took to Twitter this morning on the subject. He wrote:
I now know why unemployment is broken: we're paying two salaries for a director and employees are too busy leaking stories to press.
OK. First part: I broke the news that the head of Workforce Services had retired for a month to qualify for retirement benefits and then gone back to work at a six-figure job. Off-smelling, but unrelated issue. The second part of this tweet is a reference to the Democrat-Gazette story. It's unclear where that story originated, by the way. Workforce Services declined to comment and the Court of Appeals is a part of a wholly separate branch of government.
I responded to Burris:
Surely you're not defending Altes for pressuring a state agency. Surely state employees should be able to "leak" such.
I'm saying there's a chain of command and appropriate ways to complain. The press isn't one of them.
My reply, in brief:
You're sh***** me.
Requiring an employee to go through a chain of command to blow the whistle on legislative extortion is a virtual guarantee that a whistle won't get blown. My hat is off to whoever leaked this inappropriate conduct by Altes. I'd hope a House committee would censure him for his impropriety. I'd hope the state Ethics Commission would investigate and find a way to fine him. I think the whistleblower should get a medal.
Burris had one more comment:
Trying to stop fraudulent claims is hardly extortion. Real problems with system. $160 million worth if I remember correctly.
This is known as a red herring. There have been some national reports lately about error rates in unemployment claims. It's not clear what is due to fraud and what is due to, for example, poor recordkeeping by employers and the states. Of course we should strive for error-free payments and recovery of money paid in error. Meanwhile, however, this situation has NOTHING to do with a court case over whether or not unemployment benefits are owed a man fired by Altes' son. It's about justification for firing. A state hearing officer concluded the worker had defended himself from assault by another worker and so he was not guilty of misconduct.
"Chain of command" and "appropriate" indeed. Altes' son can present evidence to the court. The court can decide the case without behind-the-scenes extortion from Dimmy. That's the appropriate way to deal with this. And it's appropriate to blow the whistle on the bad actor.
PS — The ugly truth is that legislators throw their weight around at state agencies all the time. Many think bullying is a perk of office. If there was more whistle-blowing (and a statute protects whistle blowers) there'd be less bullying.
UPDATE: Dimmy was out at the Court of Appeals today, working on filing something offering more evidence in support of the firing of the employee. Problem: Before the court now is not the case itself, but the appeal of the Board of Review's dismissal of the Altes appeal because the Altes boys failed to follow the rules (set by the legislature) on the time in which an appeal must be filed. Dimmy can file all the police reports he wants, but they're not germane. In addition to failing to follow rules for appeal to the Board of Review, the Altes geniuses also failed to turn up for the telephone conference by the appeals tribunal that reversed an office decision to deny benefits. In short, this isn't about fraud but about stupidity. On the part of the employer.