by Max Brantley
I had my closed session with the Arkansas Ethics Commission this morning on my complaint that the Committee for Little Rock's Future hadn't adequately disclosed expenses on supporting a recent sales tax increase. The Commission decided not to dismiss my complaint.
The sales tax committee initially reported only checks issued to the Markham Group, a consulting firm, though later amended the report to report spending in broad categories — postage, campaign workers, advertising — but not specific amounts to specific recipients. About $200,000 was spent in the campaign.
I told the Ethics Commission that I was sure the Committee believed it followed the law. I also said I was making no implication about improper expenses by the committee. But I said a decision that allowed this or any committee for ballot questions to funnel money through an intermediary — here it was a reputable consulting firm, but that might not always be the case — would be an invitation to abuse. I said the law intended for campaign committees to make the same sorts of specific disclosures required of political candidates, though the statutory language is a little cloudy.
The Commission deliberated in private after my appearance with Buckley O'Mell, treasurer for the committee. (It developed in the Ethics Commission review, by the way, that the commitee was essentially administered out of the offices of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce). After private deliberations of the Commission, I was informed the complaint was not dismissed. That's the extent of what complainants may be told after such a private session — dismissed or not dismissed. Further Commission inquiry could lead to a finding of probable cause of a rules violation or some other resolution of a matter under debate.
I take today's decision as a hopeful sign that the Commission will seek to find a way to encourage more disclosure. An easy fix in this case would be for the Commission to ask the Committee for a report on expenses and for the Committee to agree to provide it. That outcome would set an important precedent statewide for accountability.
FOR EXAMPLE: The committee hoping to get Arkansas voters to approve borrowing money to sell bonds for highway construction has raised more than $260,000 (contractors mostly) and reports spending more than $27,000, but discloses payments to only one person, Craig Douglass, for a variety of services.