by Max Brantley
I have received a letter from the Arkansas Ethics Commission that says it will hold a public hearing Dec. 16 on my complaint that the Little Rock sales tax campaign committee didn't adequately report expenditures on the successful campaign to pass the sales tax.
The Commission held a private probable cause hearing earlier and voted to continue the investigation. The continuing talks between the Commission staff and the committee have been private. Scheduling of a public hearing, however, sometimes suggests that the commission staff has suggested a resolution of a complaint and that the respondent wants to make a case that it has committed no violation.
This is a very simple question of law. The Ethics Commmission could set an important precedent for accountability in regulation of campaigns on ballot issues. The law is clear that political candidates must report each specific expenditure of $100 or more in a political campaign, directly or by an intermediary. The Committee for Little Rock's Future, a creation of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, contends that a ballot question committee only has to report payments to a third-party — in its case the consulting firm it hired to run the campaign.
I don't believe the legislature intended such secrecy. If the sales tax committee view prevails, every ballot issue committee will simply write a check to a third party disbursing agent and the public willl never know how the money is spent. Some other committees are already following this course, with the Little Rock group's practice as a guide,
Here's my non-legal question for the Committee for Little Rock's Future:
Even if you MAY keep your expenditures secret, why? What's to hide?
It's worth noting that the committee's creator, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, has a history on openness to the public. It also has resisted specific disclosure of how it spends the $200,000 in tax money it gets from Little Rock each year. And it won't discuss any of the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to a state enabling law that established a chamber-dominated board in charge of developing a research park advocated by the chamber and financed by $22 million provided by the sales tax increase.
By the way: I was told yesterday by research authority member Dickson Flake, a real estate developer, that the next meeting of that research park board, meant to fully inform the public about the development, is likely to occur BEFORE completion of an RFP for identifying land to be taken, by eminent domain if necessary, for the facility. The RFP will identify the parameters for the land search, a matter of great importance to those in the affected neighborhood. They'll be disappointed if specifics aren't available to discuss. That board meeting, by the way, is at 4 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Entergy Reddy Room at 9th and Louisiana.
The Ethics Commission letter says, in part, about the coming hearing:
MATTERS OF FACT ASSERTED:
The Committee failed to disclose expenditures totaling $100 or more made on its behalf by a consulting firm which it retained to expressly advocate the passage of certain ballot measures presented to voters at an election held Sept. 13, 2011.
MATTERS OF LAW ASSERTED:
Pursuant to Ark. Code Ann 7-9-407(3) a legislative question committee is required to disclose the name and street address of each person to whom expenditures totaling $100 or more were made, together with the date and amount of each separate expenditure to each person during the period covered by the financial report and the purpose of the expenditure. The phrase "each person to whom expenditures totaling $100 or more were made" requires not only disclosure of expenditures made by a committee but also disclosure of expenditures made by a consulting firm or other third party retained by the committee to expressly advocate the passage of a ballot measure.