Ethics Commission again says it has no power over Little Rock campaign issue | Arkansas Blog

Ethics Commission again says it has no power over Little Rock campaign issue

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The state Ethics Commission has again said it has no power to enforce a city ordinance on campaign contributions to exploratory committees established by city candidates.

City Attorney Tom Carpenter had asked, at the behest of the City Board, for an advisory opinion on the legality of exploratory committees that have been formed by two candidates for mayor, Warwick Sabin and Frank Scott Jr., to get around a five-month limit on campaign fund-raising in a city ordinance.

The Ethics Commission had earlier dismissed a citzen's complaint for the same reason.

State law clearly allows a two-year fund-raising period for exploratory committees. A city ordinance restricts fund-raising to five months before an election, June 1 in the case of next year's mayoral election.

A letter from Graham Sloan, director of the Commission, this week said:

*  The state law allows local governments to establish limits on campaign contributions, but it does "not make the Commission the enforcement agency" and so the commission is "not in a position to answer the question of whether it is permissible for a candidate for municipal office to set up an exploratory committee and accept contributions outside of the time frame set forth" in the city code.

* Exploratory committees are allowed to solicit money for two years and "nothing in the laws under the Commission's jurisdiction limits contributions to the period beginning June 1."

In a letter to Mayor Mark Stodola and the Board, City Attorney Carpenter complained about the response.

It really avoids the question. If the Commission had said that the statute is in place, that cities are not banned from setting more stringent time frames for the collection of money, but the Commission could not tell if the City’s ordinance was reasonable, I would understand. It does not. It merely says that there is a statute in place with a time frame for exploratory committees, and makes no reference whether that statute is anyhow subject to the provisions of Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-224. Despite the elucidation of the meaning of that statute, nothing in the advisory opinion was not referenced in the request.

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. I will prepare a memorandum on options now that it is clear the Commission will really not address this matter.
What will the city do? We shall see. The exploratory committees are clearly an end-run around what the City Board intended — and a good government group wanted in pushing for the ordinance. They wanted to shorten the contribution period to limit the influence of money on decisions by sitting city officials.

But that same ordinance also said candidates couldn't retain carryover money. Stodola is sitting on $75,000 from an unopposed mayoral campaign and apparently intends to spend it on his campaign though the same ordinance he wants to enforce against Sabin and Scott says that carryover is prohibited and surplus should be returned to contributors or given to charity. Carpenter had previously said that THAT part of the ordinance was superseded by state law.

If all the candidates — Sabin, Scott and Stodola — wanted to follow a do-right rule, they'd all give back the money they've raised and delay fund-raising until June 1.  I'm afraid that cow is out of the barn. Will the city board really go to court or otherwise attempt to squelch Sabin and Scott while allowing Stodola to get away with his loot? Could be because preventing exploratory campaigns also protects city board members up for election from similar efforts by potential opponents. None has surfaced yet.

Here's the full advisory opinion.


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