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Contracting out

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Secretary of State Mark Martin's office paid the law firm Friday, Eldredge and Clark $3,190.27 to draft a Freedom of Information Act policy for the office. It is in part a restatement of the law, widely available in free booklets distributed by the attorney general, who also is available to provide assistance to state officials.

The payments were made in two installments. The first payment of $2,580.27 was made on May 16, 2011. A second invoice, dated June 8, shows a payment of $610. The work followed complaints about handling of FOI requests from the media and others for office documents and an allegation from one former employee that an office employee had said she'd destroy information about a $54,000 consulting contract rather than turn it over under a pending FOI request from the Arkansas Times.

The final document provided by Friday, Eldredge and Clark is just over one page long and advises the Secretary of State's office on how to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests (in what format documents should be produced, the cost of producing requests, etc.).

For example, one paragraph reads, "In the event the Secretary of State estimates that the total fee for reproducing the public records will exceed $25.00, the Secretary of State shall notify the citizen of the estimated fee and require the citizen to pay the fee before copying the public record request." The law provides: "If the fee exceeds twenty five dollars, the custodian may require the requester to pay that fee in advance."

Alex Reed, a spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin, said it's normal for state offices to obtain outside counsel.

"The reason we got outside counsel was because [a former staffer], Teresa [Belew], accused us of criminal conduct," he said. "We chose [to hire outside counsel rather than consult with the attorney general's office] to avoid a potential conflict of interest."

Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, says state offices don't have to use their services.

"We always stand ready to assist agencies, boards and commissions as the state's legal counsel," Sadler says. "However, approval by the Attorney General's Office to hire outside counsel is only necessary if there is special language in an agency appropriation bill that states that such approval is specifically required. So, agencies occasionally obtain outside counsel through the normal professional-service contract process. Sometimes, as in this instance, our office is not aware of those contracts."

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