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Funny business

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We can only guess why Gov. Mike Huckabee is fighting so hard to keep secret a parole board investigation of “official conduct” that preceded the resignation of board member Larry Zeno. Only one copy of the report exists and it’s in the governor’s office, where, at press time, he was claiming a “working papers” exemption. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has sued to contest the secrecy. The Arkansas Times also has requested the report under the Freedom of Information Act.

Two things to remember:
• Huckabee’s parole procedures have come under heavy fire over the years. He’s helped some inmates win release over objections of victims and prosecutors, sometimes on account of personal or church connections. The most famous case was that of Wayne Dumond, the rapist who went on to murder again after he was released. An Arkansas Times investigation revealed how Huckabee had pressured parole board members to back Dumond’s release.

• Zeno was the subject of a State Police investigation that concluded early in 2005 without a finding of probable cause for criminal charges. But the file of that investigation, obtained by the Times under the FOI, shows that an inmate and his father told investigators that Zeno had arranged a private meeting with the inmate, after he had supported the inmate’s clemency request, at which he’d talked about getting a cut-rate one-carat diamond ring from the inmate’s father, a jewel wholesaler. Another inmate provided corroboration of this account. A state employee confirmed Zeno’s private meeting with the inmate. Even if no crime was committed, it was monumentally bad judgment for a parole board member to talk to an inmate with business before him about getting a discount diamond ring. The governor’s office was informed of this investigation before it was concluded last year. The file includes references by one inmate to use of church connections to work on parole matters with Huckabee.

Given the background, if Zeno gave fresh cause for concern in recent months, disclosure of the details might not reflect well on Huckabee, who appointed him and apparently gave him a pass on the diamond ring episode. (Zeno has declined to talk about his case with us.)

Ghost message
Reporters live for non-scripted information. So when, a couple of months ago, a packet of documents received in the Times’ office inadvertently included copies of e-mail correspondence debating whether the documents should be released to the press, it provoked a great giggle.

Last week, something weirder came in: A press release that included in the top right-hand corner a shadow-boxed comment that clearly wasn’t meant for public release.

The release announced that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s search season had ended without getting a photograph of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct until it was spotted in the Big Woods in 2004. It was disappointing news, both biologically and economically — 22 full-time employees using state of the art acoustic and video equipment since last November had come up short.
The note at the top of the release: “Connie, Can we not say that we have tightened the circle and are encouraged to redouble efforts during the next search season?”

Sounded like spin to us — especially since Cornell will reduce its field efforts by more than half in Arkansas next fall. Cornell spokesman Connie Bruce said she hadn’t seen the message. “Peculiar” was how she described it.

Did Cornell need to put a positive spin on things? Are they secretly glum over the results? Disappointed, yes, she said. But, she added, “the truth to the matter is that everybody is really upbeat.”

Car dealer fined
The state Motor Vehicle Commission has fined Bale Chevrolet $2,500 for false and misleading advertising. The case involved an ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Oct. 13, 2005, offering 2005 Chevrolet Silverados for sale for $10,067.50. Complainant Joe Steinberg told the Commission that when he called Bale on Oct. 13, he was told that Bale had sold out of the truck at the advertised price on Oct. 10, but had been unable to change its newspaper advertisement. Steinberg said he called the newspaper and was told an ad could be changed with one day’s notice. Commission investigators Danny Holmes and Phillip Jones said they went to Bale and also were told the vehicle was unavailable and that the advertisement “broke on Monday (October 10, 2005).” A salesman then offered to show them vehicles priced between $15,500 and $20,000, they said. Holmes said he confirmed with the Democrat-Gazette that if a dealer sold out of a vehicle on Monday morning and contacted the newspaper that morning, a change could be made in the Wednesday advertisement. The Commission has authority to fine a dealer or suspend or revoke its license to do business in Arkansas.


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