by Max Brantley
Engstrom said he'd decided not to vote because he didn't want to unfairly taint two applicants — Richard Knight and Bob Nash. Knight, a former race track executive, is a friend of Engstrom who has applied. We linked here last week some e-mails between Engstrom and Knight that Engstrom voluntarily released that mostly swapped articles and comments about gambling developments. Engstrom also met with Nash, another applicant and former Clinton administration official, at the encouragement of state Rep. Tracy Steele of North Little Rock, who rents office space from Engstrom.
Engstrom said he thought there was nothing improper in those contacts. A couple of commissioners — Smokey Campbell and Diane Lamberth — have raised questions, including in a Democrat-Gazette article (pay wall) about the contacts. Campbell said the process was supposed to be a commission project, not an individual one. Engstrom said he'd been transparent and that it would be a mistake to assume he had a favorite in the process. He said of several dozen applicants, there might be 10 or more people well qualified for the position.
Engstrom said he would join the meetings in which candidates were discussed, a decision unlikely to mollify those unhappy about the contacts. He said he would speak up if necessary on issues under discussion.
It happens that Commissioners Campbell and Lamberth were viewed as supporters of Passailaigue and Engstrom was one of the strongest forces for pushing him to quit. Engstrom said state Rep. Barry Hyde, another Passailaigue defender and a member of the legislature's lottery oversight committee, had also been criticizing his contacts with the two applicants. He observed Hyde had called him some months ago to a private meeting in which Hyde said the solution to public controversy about the lottery was not to move Passailaigue out but to get rid of the internal auditor, Michael Hyde, for "turning up" too much unflattering material about Passailaigue's management.
I'm trying to get a comment from Barry Hyde.
UPDATE: I spoke with Hyde this morning. He said he had indeed been critical of the internal auditor (no relation) because he held him responsible for not monitoring the commission's correction of problems with late tax payments to the IRS. He said legislative audit was capable independently of monitoring such things as travel expenses, an area where Auditor Hyde had raised questions.
He acknowledged that contact by public officials with interested parties and even job candidates are routine (think lobbyists who call on legislators), but this job search was different and the process needed to be above any question. Of Engstrom's contacts, he said, "Even if they weren't intended to try to manipulate the system, they look bad." He added, "I don't believe he was doing anything dishonest. I believe he thought he was helping the process."
He said Engstrom's decision not to vote cleared the air as far as the two candidates were concerned. "That removes the baggage from those fellows ... It cleans it up and it demonstrates good faith."