The FBI won't confirm it, but the bureau apparently is investigating certain dealings between the state Employee Benefits Division and private vendors. EBD is a health and life self-insurance plan for teachers and state employees. A performance audit of the agency by the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee was made public in September. The audit found “questionable activity” and “the appearance of impropriety due to the close personal and/or professional relations the EBD Executive Director and Assistant Executive Director have with many vendors bidding on contracts …” The auditors said that information regarding certain contracts was being forwarded to the prosecuting attorney of the Sixth Judicial District and the state attorney general. Prosecutor Larry Jegley said this week that his office had done nothing regarding EBD, but the FBI was investigating. Steve Frazier, special agent and media representative in the Little Rock office of the FBI, had no comment. Gabe Holmstrom of the attorney general's office confirmed that the audit had been received, but wouldn't comment further. The EBD executive director at the time of the audit was Sharon Dickerson. She resigned in October and was replaced by Jason Lee. The assistant executive director at the time of the audit was George Platt, who is still with EBD. Another audit of EBD is underway.
Speaking of audits
The Arkansas Blog reported this week that legislative audit has raised questions about an office lease in Conway. Until auditors raised a question, Prosecuting Attorney Marcus Vaden's office was leasing downtown office space for $2,150 a month from MVW LLC, a partnership in which Vaden owns 25 percent interest. Vaden's interest was long known. He'd started leasing the prosecutor some office space in the building in 1993 when he was a deputy prosecutor — a “related party” transaction that the auditors noted as early as 1999 but found proper. Auditors said it was a conflict of interest, however, for Vaden to lease space directly from his own company after he was elected prosecutor and took office in 2007. That has led to two ordinances attempting to correct the problem, the latest having Faulkner County lease the space without any promise of a repayment from prosecuting attorney office proceeds. It's not known if Joint Audit will clear the latest arrangement. The audit remains in progress.
There's another public wrinkle. House Speaker Robbie Wills has owned an interest in the LLC since 2004 and has reported receiving more than $12,500 a year from the investment. A spokesman contends Wills' business relationship falls outside the definition of a 1999 law that said legislators' participation in contracts with state agencies must come through a bid process or receive legislative approval. The building is now rented by Faulkner County, which is not a state agency.
The management team of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality went on a day-and-a-half retreat this week at Mount Magazine State Park, where a resort hotel offers splendid views from the state's highest mountain. The price tag was put by the agency at $2,300. A tipster questions the expenditure during tight economic times.
A spokesman responded that ADEQ has held the retreat every two years since 2001 to discuss budgetary issues, legislative initiatives, agency goals and strategic planning.
ADEQ Public Information Officer Aaron Sadler says one benefit of having the retreat is productivity.
“Like any other business or agency, we do this to get away from the day-to-day distractions that might take place if we were to meet in a conference room at ADEQ,” Sadler said. “It's very difficult to get every division chief in one room without someone having to leave for one reason or another. Here, we can get a lot more done. We can get more done in a day and a half that we could get done in a week at ADEQ. And we have our cell phones, we're still accessible by e-mail, we just don't have the distractions that we would have at the office.”
Thursday night lights
Love high school football? Channel 4 has news for you.
Next fall, the station plans to broadcast 11 games live, all on Thursday night. Dave Woodman, a former voice of the Razorbacks, will do the play calling.
Back to private sector
Rex Nelson, the well-traveled former journalist and press spokesman for the likes of Tommy Robinson and Mike Huckabee, knew his patronage gig as a director the Delta Regional Authority wouldn't survive the change from a Republican to Democratic administration. Now we know where he's landed. He's joining The Communications Group of Little Rock as senior vice president for government relations and public outreach.
What about the others
House Speaker Robbie Wills sounds a touch rankled that his friend Tom Courtway dropped out of the selection process for state lottery director. The Arkansas Times had raised questions about whether Courtway's selection was being guided by influence from friendly legislators. Wills had repeatedly defended Courtway's “impeccable record.” He also wrote on his blog this week:
“I wonder if the same folks who were so down on Courtway will now turn their attention to the many other “non-industry” applicants who, unlike the handful of applicants who've worked for a lottery organization, have the temerity to think they'd do a good job through innate talent and leadership ability. Or delve into what — or who — inspired the out-of-state lottery candidates to submit their applications.”
Gov. Mike Beebe is the cover story in the latest issue of Governing magazine, an influential trade publication. The six-page feature lauds Beebe for how good he is at his job and even quotes former Gov. Dale Bumpers as saying history might find Beebe to be the best Arkansas governor ever. Strong praise from a politician who has no small appreciation of his own talents.