I wrote last week that the ethics violations by Sen. Paul Bookout were only the beginning of the story.
No kidding. Hours later, the Blue Hog Report website rolled out an examination of the campaign finance reports Lt. Gov. Mark Darr has filed since he won election in 2010. He ended the campaign owing himself $115,000. In the three years since then, he's raised $127,000, but paid down only $97,0000 of the debt.
How's that? Darr has been using his campaign account like an ATM. He charged it tank after tank of gas. He charged restaurant meals. He bought clothing at men's, women's and children's stores. He bought season football tickets for University of Arkansas games in 2011 in both Fayetteville and Little Rock.
He made fraudulent statements about these personal expenditures, calling them "supplies" or "fund-raising." He and other politicians claim that Razorback tickets are a necessity to get out in public to meet the kinds of people that can help you retire your debt. But four seats? Not just one? The same question could be asked when Darr uses campaign or public expense in taking his wife along on out-of-state trips.
Yes, some of the $30,000 Darr spent went to campaign fund-raising — a golf tournament, for example. But thousands did not.
After the Ethics Commission reprimanded Paul Bookout, the outcry from Republicans was immediate and justified. They wanted him gone and prosecuted. In less than a week, he resigned. And a Democratic prosecutor has put a special prosecutor to work.
Darr is in the process of amending his campaign reports to remove the lies. He'll say he just made a mistake. That he should have reported money spent on himself as loan payback. Yes, he should have. But he didn't. Because the scam he operated allowed him to raise money in excess of loan payback and pocket some boodle for himself.
Darr hopes for the kid-glove treatment Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson got when he "self-reported" his mistress' use of campaign money in his Senate campaign in 2010. The Ethics Commission took Hutchinson at his word that a couple of checks were all that was wrong with his campaign, an iffy proposition given his train wreck of a personal life and a girlfriend with access to his campaign checkbook.
If Darr's campaign gets the searching look it deserves, he should be in line for sanctions as serious as those meted out to Paul Bookout. Darr turned himself in only after being caught red-handed. He didn't maintain adequate records. He spent campaign money on personal use. He misrepresented the nature of the expenditures. Darr has added problems in explaining some expenses from his taxpayer-financed office expense account.
Note this: As the noise about Bookout grew, a number of Democrats expressed disapproval of what he'd done and several called for his resignation. To date, not a single Republican has stepped forward to criticize Darr, much less call for his resignation or a special prosecutor's review.
Among many changes needed in the state ethics laws is stiffer punishment. As it stands a violation of campaign finance reporting, including personal use of the money, is punishable only as a misdemeanor.
There's no reason why the violation shouldn't be promoted to a felony when the amount of money misuse reaches an amount necessary to file a felony theft charge — $1,000. You can see where that might make a politician like Mark Darr a little nervous. His clothing bill alone at Belk, Dillard's, Walker Brothers, New York and Co. and Justice (for kids) exceeded that.