Columns » Ernest Dumas

Huck's law

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You can never be certain how much of a hand Gov. Huckabee had in the muddled and sometimes unlawful methods of governing at the state Capitol, just as it's hard every time to detect President Bush's coarse hand in the duplicity of the agencies that serve him. Even the state government of little Arkansas is a big and ungainly place. But Huckabee doesn't deserve a pass on all of the shenanigans of the agencies in the executive branch under men whom he appointed, a passel of which came to light in a single week in July. He could claim ignorance of some of them or distance in the feeding chain if they did not all follow a familiar course - some sort of ruse to skirt the clear formulations of state law. Gov. Huckabee is going to have his way no matter if the statutes or even the Constitution block his path. They will remind the observant of a litany of excursions around the law, beginning with the misuse of the funds appropriated to operate the Governor's Mansion. The Huckabees were using the money for personal uses, which they eventually agreed to stop after ethical complaints and a lawsuit. There is no room here to run down the list for the eight years of the Huckabee reign but last week is another matter. An audit of the state Employment Security Division revealed that funds for that agency's employment activities were diverted to pay the $94,876 annual salary of Huckabee's former campaign director to be his eyes and ears in Washington. The Arkansas Constitution prohibits an agency from spending funds for purposes for which they were not appropriated. The man's salary was almost exactly what the agency claimed last year to be saving from closing 25 employment offices that served people in rural areas. That was not all. The auditors said the agency seemed to have bypassed federal rules so that it could pay Nestle USA to train workers for its plant at Jonesboro and that the agency was shelling out $575,438 to lease space in a Little Rock building that it was not using. The day before the audit was made public, lawmakers learned that Gov. Huckabee was paying his private attorney in the Lake View school case $250 an hour from a fund set aside for state emergencies rather than from his own office funds, as state law required. Attorney General Mike Beebe had advised him six months ago that the law required him to pay the man from his office funds if the governor was not going to use attorney general's staff. The governor's attorney, though the highest paid among the gaggle of lawyers in the case, lost the appeal. On the same day, another legislative committee wrestled with the prospects that the state will have to pay the federal government - that's the Bush administration - $30 million of federal and state funds dedicated to the health care of the poor. Two of Huckabee's departments conspired to use iit instead to pay for the state's Rube Goldberg computer system. The state is hoping a friendly Bush administration will call off the auditors and forgive the misspending. That is a lot of duplicity for one week. It has sometimes taken resourceful governors to make an obsolete constitution and inflexible laws work for the public good, but that is not what is at work here. The governor and his department heads - a recently departed one in the case of the unfortunate Employment Security agency - were not manipulating obsolete rules to put bold and humane policies into effect. They simply ignored the law to institute a scheme that either could have been accomplished legally or that flouted any principle of public welfare. Huckabee tried to make a case that paying his former campaign manager and the head of a political fund that wrecked Republican finances two years ago as if he were the deputy director of the Employment Security Division at Little Rock was a bold and humane use of public money. Jason Brady, Huckabee's political operative, lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the governor, not the employment agency that pays him with federal money. The governor said Brady had proved his great value a few weeks ago by persuading President Bush to restore funds for the Ouachita-Black River navigation project that he had cut from the budget. Everyone in South Arkansas at least knows that Brady was not responsible for that. Congressman Mike Ross, D-Ark., embarrassed Bush and Huckabee when the president paid a campaign visit to El Dorado in the spring by pointing out that Bush cared so little about South Arkansas that he had cut funding for that vital project. The White House arranged for Huckabee to announce a few days later that Bush was restoring the money for South Arkansas. It will take more than a poor yarn to cover deceits of that magnitude.

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