It's may sound like a fantasy, but the fact is that 310 of these secret phone extensions actually exist within the state government's phone system. And — surprise — most of the lines are used by politicians and high-level bureaucrats.
The greatest beneficiary, with 106 secret lines at it's disposal, is the state House of Representatives, followed by the state Senate, with 67 lines. The rest are scattered throughout eight agencies, including the Public Service Commission, secretary of state, treasurer, legislative audit, the legislative council, the governor's office and mansion, and a relatively obscure office at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock called the Arkansas Institute for Economic Advancement.
How do these lucky people obtain such a privilege? They call John Kennedy, director of the state office of computer services, and ask for it.
Kennedy says he doesn't have a policy for who can and can't obtain long-distance secrecy, and anyway, he's not really concerned about the potential for abuse.
The situation arose in 1984 when Kennedy's office became, in effect, the state's long-distance carrier, buying long-distance service in bulk from companies like Southwestern Bell and billing each agency for their calls. (In the last year, the state logged roughly 9.5 million minutes of long distance calling, according to Kennedy.)
Long distance calls on the state phone system are billed at flat rates, regardless of the call's destination.
Normally, the destination and the number called are recorded anyway on the bills, but for the 310 phones, those columns are left blank.
The state computers never actually record the call desinations, Kennedy says, but store only the duration of the call and the cost, so there is no trail left for investigators. And because the computer phone records are quickly purged, it would take weeks of manual research through disorganized microfiche to determine exactly how much the state has spent on long distance calls from the phones whose use is shrouded in secrecy.
Why do these state officials need so much privacy?
"It's simply something that we chose to do," says Sam Bratton, chairman of the public service commission. "Before I went to the commission, I had worked for the Governor's office, where they had this system. So when I went to the commission in 1989, I called John Kennedy and asked if we could get that same thing at the public service commission.”
The secrecy feature is available on Bratton's two telephone lines, in addition to those of commissioners Pat Qualls and Julius Kearney and chief administrative law judge Dave Slaton.
Bratton, however, would not provide any justification for the secret lines.
Max Parker, spokesperson for the governor's office, says one of the reasons the governor needs telephone privacy is that he sometimes becomes involved in sensitive industrial recruitment negotiations that could be compromised by disclosure.
And State Rep. Bobby L. Hogue, the incoming speaker of the house, was matter-of-fact in his defense of the protected phone lines.
"We consider the relationship between a representative and a constituent to be like that between an attorney and a client. I have to think that the people here in this house of representatives will not abuse that privilege."
Sen. Jay Bradford, incoming chairman of the Senate Efficiency Committee, agrees that there is some need for confidentiality on legislature phones. "There are some confidential sources that come over the phone to us," he says. "They might be reporting a crime, for example."
But Bradford fears that the privilege might invite abuse, so he is considering an arrangement in which the person called would remain unnamed for public consumption, but the destination city would be listed as a way to screen records for abuse. And certainly, he said, the protected records ought to available to law enforcement investigators as a backup in case a problem arises.
Many of the officials contacted about the secret phones were perplexed by the Arkansas Times' concern, but the record is replete with examples of state telephone abuse.
The best and most infamous example is the case of Larry Nichols. In 1988, The Associated Press reported that the six-month employee of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority had made at least 600 questionable phone calls from his state phone (including attempts where no connection was made), using state time. In a limited review of the records, the AP found more than 140 calls to U.S. leaders of the Nicaraguan Contra movement, and about 330 calls to Washington, D.C. political consultant Darrell Glasscock.
If had Nichols been working at the secretary of state's office, with its 32 secret phone extensions, or the treasurer's office, with its 30, he might still be burning up the phone lines at the taxpayers' expense.