Just a little more than seven months on the job were enough for Times readers to select Secretary of State Mark Martin as the winner of the Best Misuse of Taxpayer Funds category. The spending sins of runner-up Little Rock National Airport — $272,000 in credit card expenses in a year, a $40,000 advertisement on a football field of a school attended by the airport's top exec, excessive travel to exotic locales — probably deserve the anti-prize. But Martin's courted the spotlight more, never shying away from an opportunity to embarrass himself and his office. If he maintains his current pace of gaffes, maybe next year he can beat out Mike Huckabee, who has years more on-the-job experience, for Best Worst Arkansan. Below, highlights of Martin's buffoonery to date.
Ready for the job. Responding to a November post by Rep. Donna Hutchinson on his Facebook page that asked him to "eliminate" using Spanish on information that comes from the secretary of state's office, Martin wrote, "Donna, I fully intend to take care of the issue." Never mind that the Arkansas Constitution requires officials to prepare voter forms in Spanish.
Just because I said it, doesn't mean I meant it, and you can hold me responsible. In January, several employees in Martin's office add a disclaimer of gibberish to their e-mail signatures meant to undermine FOI requests. A sample passage: "Opinions, statements, and assertions in this e-mail are not intended for public release. In the event of public release, the public is advised to treat this e-mail with caution, as any and all e-mail is subject to later revision (including revision that may not be transmitted by e-mail); matters set forth herein are effective only as of the date and time on the e-mail itself."
Found money. Early in his term, Martin helped himself to $70,000 from the Arkansas Board of Apportionment's budget to buy a car and hire Republican consultants without approval from fellow board members Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. When Beebe and McDaniel objected, he shifted the expenses to his own budget. The car added a 24th vehicle to his fleet. The secretary of state's office said it would go to "voter education." Later reporting revealed that Martin has no means in place for documenting his office's use of state vehicles.
Strengthening ethics through frivolous spending. In April, his office signed a $54,000 contract with the Soderquist Center at John Brown University, which lists its mission as "Equipping people with the transforming power of ethical leadership." The expense included a retreat for top staffers at the Greystone Estate in Rogers and an "on-site visit" in Little Rock to interview staff members with questions like, "What is the Secretary of State's office best known for?"
Never mind all that other stuff; we done good. A July news release trumpeted money Martin's office had saved taxpayers in its first six months by finishing the fiscal year $3.2 million — or 17.8 percent — under budget. Never mind that the state operates under the assumption that constitutional officers will spend around 85 percent of their budgets. All of Martin's fellow constitutional officers' percentage spending closely mirrored his own, save the governor's office, which was 25 percent under budget.
A true ethical stand. Martin's executive assistant Teresa Belew resigned over what she believed were Freedom of Information Act violations on behalf of the secretary of state's office in trying to keep information about the Soderquist Center contract from reaching the Times.
Let's take this outside. "I don't need some paperboy calling attention to me. I've already been FOIed by you bastards from the liberal media and I don't need anything from you tonight," Martin told local newspaper publisher Mike Graves at a May Mount Ida Chamber of Commerce benefit after Graves pointed out to the auctioneer that there were politicians in the audience. After Martin returned to Graves' table to complain, Graves told him, "I'm not one of your liberal media bastards out of Little Rock, and if you would like to continue this, I'll be happy to go out to the parking lot and give you a shot at whipping my country ass." The secretary of state reportedly didn't have anything else to say.