- CAMPBELL: Citizen blogger.
Seventeen days. That's how long Lt. Gov. Mark Darr's campaign for U.S. Congress lasted, thanks to the muckraking efforts of local blogger Matt Campbell.
On Aug. 20, Campbell published a post on Blue Hog Report — the independent, Democratic-leaning blog the 35-year-old local attorney writes in his spare time — outlining problems in Darr's campaign finance reporting. For one thing, the Republican Darr had a number of expenses listed as fundraisers in 2011 after having just won a four-year term in 2010. It's unlawful for a candidate to seek campaign contributions more than two years before an election. Even more problematic, many of the expenses listed as fundraisers appeared to be personal expenses.
Campbell highlighted meals at local eateries like Cotham's, Sushi Cafe and Cajun's Wharf. The size of the bills and the lack of money raised gave the impression that Darr was simply dipping into his campaign funds to eat out. "There is nothing about those ... dinners that would even remotely suggest that they were debt-retirement fundraisers rather than Mark Darr simply dining out and paying for the whole tab," Campbell blogged. "While that might make him a nice fellow, that's not a fundraiser."
Even harder to explain for Darr: listing fundraisers at gas stations, which looked an awful lot like Darr was simply filling up his tank. And then there were expenditures at both men's and women's clothing stores listed as "supplies."
If all of this sounds familiar, it should: Former Sen. Paul Bookout (D-Jonesboro), following $8,000 in fines from the Ethics Commission and with a possible criminal prosecution looming, resigned the same day that Campbell put up the initial Darr post. While Darr hadn't spent the same sums as Bookout, the picture was more or less the same: a man using his campaign funds as a personal bank account.
Campbell, a Missouri native who has lived in Little Rock for seven years, is no stranger to ruffling the feathers of lawmakers. Blue Hog Report, which began in 2010, first gained attention using Freedom of Information Act requests to highlight the questionable uses of state gas cards and credit cards in 2011. It is widely assumed that Campbell's FOIA requests to Secretary of State Mark Martin led Chase Dugger, then executive director of the state Republican Party, to send massive FOIA requests of his own to the state Supreme Court, where Campbell then worked. The fishing expedition — aimed to show that Campbell was blogging on state time — came up empty, but the notoriety led Campbell to shut down the blog.
Campbell left his job at the court this spring to start his own firm, Pinnacle Law Firm. The very next day, Blue Hog Report was back online. "I got so frustrated through this past legislative session not having an outlet to just talk about some of the stuff that was going on," he said. "I decided to put the whole thing back up exactly as if I never left." The amount of time Campbell spends on the blog varies but a story like the Darr scandal demands a couple of hours a day, he said. It's a labor of love — he doesn't make any money off of the blog.
After its return, Blue Hog Report continued its use of the FOIA and careful perusal of publicly available documents to do investigative reporting. It was a niche with plenty of room for an aggressive blog to shine. "Between budget cuts and the lack of attention spans, the way most media — especially TV — is packaged, there aren't many people that are willing to put in that time because there's not that many eyeballs that are going to look at it," Campbell said. "I stumbled into that role. I started this blog as a way just to keep tabs on the 2010 elections. After that was over I started looking for something else to write about. I guess I'm just obsessive enough. I'll follow a paper trail and see where it goes."
Upon return of the blog, Martin was again among the officials that Campbell investigated. In July, Campbell sued the secretary of state's office for failing to comply with his FOIA requests. Ironically, the documents Campbell had requested related to Martin's heavy use of outside legal counsel; Martin's use of outside counsel in the FOIA case itself then led to a minor scandal. A Pulaski County circuit judge ruled in August that Martin had not followed the law in doing so (a ruling that Martin is now appealing) and Gov. Mike Beebe condemned Martin's actions.
The Darr revelations, meanwhile, came about when Campbell was doing follow-up work on his 2011 posts on state gas and credit cards. "I was looking at the constitutional officers two years after the fact and started with lieutenant governor," he said. "When the Bookout stuff happened, Mark Darr was kind of already on my brain because I had been looking at the credit card receipts, so I thought I'd look and see what's in [his campaign finance reports] out of curiosity. Immediately the gas station fundraisers started jumping out and the more I dug, the worse the big picture looked."
In a follow-up the day after his initial post, Campbell dropped another bombshell. An FOIA request to the University of Arkansas revealed that a $1,500 expenditure listed as a fundraiser was in fact four season tickets to Razorback football games. The drip-drip-drip scandal continued with a Blue Hog post on Aug. 22, cross-referencing credit card and gas card receipts with Darr's campaign finance disclosure forms. Among other things, Campbell made a circumstantial case that Darr had used his state credit card for personal expenses.
The Darr story was immediately picked up by the Times' Arkansas Blog and was reported on in the Democrat-Gazette Aug. 23. By the end of that Friday, both Campbell and Darr (against himself) filed complaints with the Ethics Commission.
By Tuesday, the writing was on the wall for the Darr congressional campaign. Dugger, now working for the political consulting group Impact Management, announced that the group had resigned from the campaign, concluding that they could not represent Darr after looking over his campaign finance reports. Darr dropped out of the race Thursday.
Campbell said it was all a bit surreal for him as the news broke that Darr was leaving the race. "I got emails and texts from people all day long," he said. "This is much cooler and more of a statement about modern media than any of the stuff that I've done in the past."
Campbell is planning a series of posts this week investigating probelms with Darr's gas mileage reimbursements.
Campbell said that he was offended by Darr's comments that scrutiny over his ethics was the sort of thing that would "drive normal people away from politics" and make Little Rock more like Washington, D.C.
"I don't think that's true at all," he said. "If people realize this information is out there and you can actually see where the money comes from and goes to, if anything that should encourage more people to act and look."
"From the beginning, even going back to the stuff in 2011, my goal has always been shining a spotlight when something like this comes up," Campbell said. "Ask a question, do some digging, and if the answer is as shady as you expect, tell people about it and hope that eventually it leads to some kind of change."