Columns » John Brummett

Bad taste

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You will remember, perhaps, that Lt. Gov. Bill Halter spent $9,000 of your money this summer to print and mail 18,000 copies of a full-color promotional newsletter.

Halter bragged on himself as a real go-getter and plastered 12 photographs of himself over six small pages.

I found it outrageous, if humorous in a way, and wrote as much, even though, yes, nine grand is nothing, chump change, in the state budget.

Many elected politicians abuse their taxpayer-provided budgets to promote themselves personally under the guise of reporting diligently to the public. Secretary of State Charlie Daniels and Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox — they can stop the practice of fancy mailers, too, as far as I'm concerned. But at least their offices have actual public responsibilities, Daniels' more than Wilcox's.

A lieutenant governor is wholly superfluous. He's the acting governor if the real one crosses the state line. He is the figurehead presiding officer of the state Senate. He bears not one actual obligation to the functioning of our government.

It is true that Halter is the “father of the Arkansas lottery,” but he did that not by obligation or responsibility, but by his own choice. Anyway, there is a private organization that exists to tout him and the lottery.

So Halter's sin was more nonsensically egregious than the norm. To fill the pages, he was compelled to turn a supposed public accounting — “Capitol Watch,” he comically called it — into his own personal photo album.

Think about it: Halter gave us two chances a page to see what he looked like. Unless you're Angelina Jolie, that's too much. And to tell you the truth, I'd object if Jolie tried to charge the Arkansas taxpayers for it. And two pictures per page of those large pouty lips — I don't know about that either, now that I think about. Jolie's, I mean.

So it came to be that, a few weeks after publication of my column, a Little Rock man named Jim Rule e-mailed me to express an outrage exceeding my own. He asked what I thought about his filing a complaint with the Ethics Commission seeking to sanction Halter for using public funds for personal campaigning.

It is not my role to counsel citizens on the free exercise of their expression. But I did reply to Rule to say that real unethical behavior and what the Ethics Commission can regulate and sanction were two different things.

Regrettably, I told him, personal promotion by politicians on the taxpayers' tab was not unusual and probably not actionable in any formal regulatory way.

What we needed, I countered, was the emergence in our elected public servants of a blend of discretion, restraint, modesty and good taste.

Rule paid no attention and filed his complaint.

So on Friday the Ethics Commission ruled on the complaint. Afterward, Halter issued a statement saying, “The Ethics Commission dismissed this complaint and found no violation and no campaigning.”

Well, yes, that was true, but Halter missed altogether the Ethics Commission's inflection.

Here's what director Graham Sloan wrote: “Although public funds were used to pay for the cost of the newsletter in question and it came very close to being campaign literature, the commission determined that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause that the newsletter constituted campaign literature because it did not make reference to an election or contain a call to action for votes or contributions.”

In other words, Sloan said, essentially, that the mailing stunk but wasn't a formal ethics violation because Halter did not say outright over those six pages that he wished everyone would vote for him in whatever next election he might choose.

Halter did not have room to say that because of all the pictures of himself.

The Ethics Commission vote was 4-to-1, with the designated Republican representative voting not to dismiss the complaint.

Ethics regulation, like everything else, is partisan, of course.

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