Columns » John Brummett

Establishment guy for the lottery



The prospective hiring of Tom Courtway of Conway as the first state lottery director might otherwise be troubling.

He is, after all, a legislative establishment guy, and, after all, the legislature is supposed to let the lottery commission operate as a quasi-independent corporation. Not meddle, in other words.

As a state representative in the ‘90s, lawyer Courtway rose to the chairmanship of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and was near-universally hailed in the legislative fraternity for competence and leadership.

With the Lake View school funding case hanging as a dark cloud over the state Education Department, Gov. Mike Huckabee tabbed him to do vital combat duty as interim director.

He was the general counsel for the University of Central Arkansas, apparently kept largely out of Lu Hardin's loose loop, and got called on to be interim president and steer the school through the rather spectacular mess in which it had been left.

So it happened a few weeks ago that I read on the Arkansas Times news blog that, unbelievably, legislators were pushing an unidentified former legislator to be the director of the new lottery.

Oh, dear. They'd taken to meddling from the very get-go.

I phoned a leading legislator and he told me that, yes, it was true that some legislators had a former legislator in mind for the job, and that, furthermore, I shouldn't recoil in horror because I'd surely like the idea, too.

Some legislators had the notion to tab Courtway. He had executive experience leading high-profile agencies over choppy waters. He had earned legislative trust. And heaven knew he needed to be rescued from UCA, where the near-daily drip of newly exposed fiscal recklessness from the Hardin administration was about to wear a good man down.

This legislator said all of this was most delicate. Legislators didn't  want to dictate to the lottery commission. They didn't want to risk the appearance of dictating. They didn't want to spoil any appointment of Courtway with the appearance of an unseemly legislative hand.

So, the legislator said, some of us are going to suggest to Tom that he apply and then we'll stay the heck out of the process, re-entering it only if someone asks what we think of him. In that event, the legislator said, we'll tell the truth that he is uncommonly competent and trustworthy, ideally suited by experience and obsessive work habits for any difficult job state government might have.

A couple of days later, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the father of the lottery and a confirmed state government outsider, said he thought the search should be from a nationwide talent pool.

Now Courtway has applied.

What might be the problem with a former legislator heading the new lottery? It is that legislators could avail themselves of their relationship to attempt to influence inappropriately, even in a corrupt way, the selection of vendors and awarding of contracts.

Is that why leading legislators are quietly encouraging Courtway's selection? No, or so I'm personally certain.

These advocates of Courtway are motivated instead by a desire to be assured of three quite positive things:

1. A clean and successful lottery.

2. Someone they can trust and who would give them comfort in their hands-off role, and who, when summoned by legislators, would be respectfully responsive to appropriate and legally mandated legislative review and oversight.

3. Someone who'd have the nerve and standing to reject any perhaps inevitable inappropriate overtures from legislators or others.

The lottery commission probably ought inevitably to consider two finalists: Courtway and whichever applicant from the nationwide applicants it deems best.

The commission should then test those two finalists vigorously, choosing what would be the better of two good options.

I'd take Courtway. I'd take anybody the lottery commission honestly and objectively deemed to be preferable to him.


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