Columns » Max Brantley

Mr. Smith goes to LR

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Republican Rep. Roger Smith of Hot Springs Village takes offense at the suggestion he's a poster child for old-school Arkansas politics. You decide. Term-limited, Smith has taken actions for more than a year that will help him land an $85,000-a-year golden parachute, directorship of the $500 million Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System. Smith, a retired insurance agent and former volunteer fireman, began building credits with police and fire retirees long ago. He's passed a couple dozen pieces of legislation to benefit cops and firemen, who now constitute a majority of the board that hires the director. Police/fire control of the board took some doing. The board once was split between two fire and police employees and two mayors, plus an at-large swing vote for the occasional employer/employee rifts. Smith was a sponsor of legislation in 2003 to add a police and a fire rep, giving those employees a sure 4-3 majority. As it happens, Smith waved the board-expansion bill out of a committee he chairs without a roll call. A lobbyist who opposed the bill said Smith got him out of the room on a pretext before a voice vote by insufficient legislators (Smith disputes some of this). Final touch: Smith's name was on the letter giving Gov. Mike Huckabee the names of the two people appointed to the new seats. Cathryn Hinshaw, who had led the system since it was established, knew the board-packing bill meant trouble. She lobbied against it. That ticked off the board, which forced her to resign. Smith was ready. He'd already been making important contacts, along with his pal Ted Mullenix, a lobbyist for cops and former Republican legislator. The pitch seemed to be that Smith should be guaranteed the job. Smith insists the job sought him, not vice versa. Smith also insists it wasn't lobbying when he took a police official out to lunch; dined with an at-large trustee (including the night before a Board meeting to cull applications), and helped the at-large trustee on a pheasant hunt on a Smith family farm in Nebraska. One of the trustees didn't appreciate the attention. Police trustee Bill Milburn of Conway believed Smith and Mullenix put him in a hot box when they met with him. In an e-mail to another Board member, he described it as unethical pressure by a sitting legislator and a lobbyist. So now the math gets tricky. If Smith loses Milburn's vote, the System board, which is supposed to meet March 18 on six finalists, still splits 4-3 in his favor. But … the four votes include that of Charles Lawrence, who is not qualified to serve because he lost his firefighter job in Texarkana. But … the Board refuses to declare the seat vacant. Finally, only a tortured technical argument that this public pension fund isn't a state agency would allow Smith to go to work there before his legislative term ends in 2005. The details are really irrelevant. A smell attaches when a legislator jumps directly into a fat public office influenced by his own legislation - with help from a lobbyist with a financial interest in that office.

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