by Max Brantley
UPDATED THROUGHOUT FROM EARLIER: The state Ethics Commission today voted unanimously to reprimand Sen. Paul Bookout, the Jonesboro Democrat, and fine him $8,000 — the maximum of $2,000 for each of four violations of campaign finance law.
Bookout was not present. His attorney has promised a statement.
Bob Hester, a Jonesboro retiree and conservative activist, said he was generally satisfied with the outcome. But he said, "He should resign for the things he's done." He said he'd have to know more about the law before saying whether criminal penalties might be in order.
Criminal penalties ARE possible for all the statutes Bookout was found to have violated. Class A or unclassified misdemeanors are possible, with maximum punishment up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each. The law allows the commission to share information with prosecutors and to "recommend" prosecutorial consideration. No such recommendation was included in the motion today, but a prosecutor could take up the case on his own. It's unclear immediately whether that would fall in Craighhead County, where Bookout made improper expenditures and transfers, or in Pulaski County, where campaign finance reports are filed.
Bookout is expected to file the required new accounting of his campaign expenses today. His attorney, Robert Thompson, a Paragould senator, has said previously that Bookout would be willing to repay improper expenditures.
UPDATE: Bookout has no intention of resigning. He issued a prepared statment which significantly lacks any acknowledgment of wrongdoing (perhaps by way of protection in the event of a criminal review):
“I respect the process of the Arkansas Ethics Commission that led to their decision and I fully intend to abide by it. I have cooperated with the Commission on these matters since the issues first arose and were brought to my attention. I do not intend to appeal the decision. Amended contribution and expense reports are being filed today in conjunction with the Commission’s ruling. Those reports were updated to the best of my knowledge and ability.
“I value the trust my campaign donors place in me with their political contributions. To that end, I will be reimbursing my campaign approximately $49,000, and then repaying contributors pro-rata over the next 30 days. This is not required by the Ethics Commission’s decision, but I feel it is the right thing to do, given the ruling of the Ethics Commission.
“I am honored to serve the people of my district in the Arkansas Senate. I look forward to completing my final term in office focused on the issues facing our state.”
I tried to follow up with Bookout and asked by e-mail, for one thing, if he really didn't understand that campaign money couldn't be used for personal expenses. He responded:
As I said in my statement, I respect the process of the Arkansas Ethics Commission that led to their decision and I fully intend to abide by it. I don’t have any further comment on it.
A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said the finding indicated any breach of public trust by a public official, but he didn't plan to call on Bookout to resign. He noted that the matter didn't involve taxpayer money. Said Matt DeCample:
He was glad to see that Senator Bookout will not appeal the Ethics Commission ruling and plans corrective actions in response instead.
The Commission found Bookout had not reported expenses of more than $100 in an itemized fashion as required; had not kept sufficient records of expenditures; had spent money on non-campaign purposes and had mingled campaign and private money.
Hester, who was informed of the investigation results in a private meeting before the vote, said the Commission had told him that it had offered Bookout an agreed settlement — $4,000 in fines and there'd been a mention of Bookout's willingness to pay back $49,000 in expenses. Hester said he was told Bookout had declined because an agreement would constitute admission of wrongdoing. Hester said the commission also said it didn't have the authority to order a refund. If Hester's recollection of the session is correct, Bookout's unwillingness to admit wrongdoing cost him $4,000.
For now, no details of the investigation can be released. By law, 30 day must elapse first. A final order in the case and the letter of reprimand should be issued soon, perhaps before the day is out.
Yet to be heard from are other politicians. A Democrat would do well to call for Bookout's resignation and a prosecutorial investigation before the Republican Party does so. I wrote earlier — and I still believe — that misuse of campaign money for personal expenses isn't isolated to Paul Bookout. However, the amount of money misspent here is unprecedented and a fine, even the maximum, is not a sufficient deterrent when a veteran legislator in his last term after six yers in the House and as many in the Senate won't even acknowledge it's wrong. Perhaps he had some shame so didn't say he didn't know any better. Standard of proof is much higher in a criminal proceeding than in a civil proceeding like an Ethics Commission review. But it should be given a hard look in this case.
It is a black eye for Bookout and those who once elected him president pro tempore of the Senate.
UPDATE: It took the Republicans until 3:30 p.m. today to respond and then a party spokesman handled the duty, not Party Chair Doyle Webb, as is often customary. Webb served in the Senate with Bookout's father, Jerry.
“Today’s developments regarding Paul Bookout are shocking, alarming, and greatly disappointing. This represents a very serious breach of the public’s trust. It is sad that this type of behavior is all too common among Arkansas Democrats, who have controlled the state for the last 130 years. We hope that our state’s leaders and the justice system will hold Senator Bookout accountable, just as they have in the cases of Martha Shoffner and Hudson Hallum,” said David Ray, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas.
Noted: A new law takes effect today that endeavors to further define an "infamous crime," which is a standard for removal of a public official from office. One definition: "A misdemeanor offense in which the finder of fact was required to find, or the defendant to admit, an act of deceit, fraud, or false statement." Bookout supported the legislation.
Noted II: Though Bookout, 51, lists his employment as administrative director of system relations for St. Bernards Healthcare, as well as being a state senator, and his wife is employed as a school counselor, his statement of financial interest for 2012 said he had no business or investment — bank account, stock, mutual fund, real estate, business — worth more than $1,000.
I don't qualify the word violations with "alleged" because some elements of this case are readily apparent, as noted here earlier. Bookout, though unopposed in 2012, raised $81,000 and spent $50,000 in unitemized expenses, including $27,000 on "entertainment." The Jonesboro Sun has reported previously that Bookout's lawyer, Sen. Robert Thompson, had offered a repayment by Bookout of $48,000 and quoted him as saying there were 97 expenditures of $100 or more, the point at which individual expenses must be itemized.
The complainant, Bob Hester of Jonesboro, has received notice that the Commission will decide the matter this morning. Bookout's failure to itemize is apparent. Did he commit the law violation of use of campaign money for personal expenses? That's a more serious charge.
This case is far too serious to be worked out by some sort of agreed resolution — filing of a proper report and a slap-on-the-wrist tiny fine.
The Commission will meet privately before announcing a public decision. If violations are found, there's a 30-day period for appeal before the investigative files — which should detail Bookout's spending — are open to the public.
Bookout's final campaign report is a pretty good illustration of what's at issue. It shows in the final two months of 2012, nearly all that time a period after an election in which he didn't have an opponent, Bookout reported $1,963 in travel expenses and more than $5,300 in entertainment expenses, none itemized.
I don't say this by way of mitigation. If the situation unfolds as it appears likely to do, the Commission should throw the book at Bookout. But I wish we had an Ethics Commission with staff and resources to review the filings of all candidates. This case begged for review, if only someone looked. Hester, a dedicated political foe of Bookout, did so. Good for him. But campaign filing reviews should be comprehensive and routine. I'd hazard the speculation that Bookout isn't alone in failing to adequately report expenditures or in using campaign money in a way that might appear more personal than political.