Columns » Max Brantley

Official secrets

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The state Ethics Commission last week voted 4-0 to dismiss my complaint that the Committee for Little Rock's Future, which spent more than $200,000 in support of Little Rock's recent sales tax proposal, hadn't adequately reported how it spent the money.

It was disappointing because the Commission had earlier voted 4-0 to find probable cause that I was correct.

The Committee hired a lawyer, Kevin Crass of the Friday Firm, to appeal. Crass persuaded the Ethics Commission that state law didn't specifically guard against a scheme the committee employed to keeps its expenditures secret.

State law requires committees formed to support or oppose ballot measures to disclose every check of $100 or more. The Committee for Little Rock's Future, apart from a checking account fee, only wrote checks to the Markham Group, a political consulting group. The Markham Group spent the money on mailing, ads, campaign workers and other things, but didn't report these expenditures publicly.

Disclosure of the handful of checks to Markham was enough, Crass said, though Ethics Commission rules attempt to guard against arrangements to defeat disclosure. For example, disclosure of a payment to a credit card isn't enough. The underlying charges must be listed.

The Markham Group, Crass took great pains to argue, is a professional organization. No doubt. But it is, for practical purposes, a straw man, the same as any intermediary would be in laundering money so that expenditures need not be disclosed. Under the ruling last week, if a committee writes a single $1 million check to an intermediary disbursing agent to avoid disclosure of subsequent expenditures, it's legal.

I took away a moral victory. Graham Sloan, director of the Ethics Commission, readily acknowledged I'd identified a loophole in the law. The Ethics Commission favors more disclosure of expenditures, too. Paul Dumas, who acted as chair of the commission, said "it's clear public disclosure is down the tubes the way this statute is written." He said, as Sloan did, that he'd favor a legislative solution for more accountability.

That can't happen until 2013. Meanwhile, most ballot question committees will continue to be secretive, as they have been for years. And it won't be easy to change the law.

Neither Robert McLarty, head of the Markham Group, nor Jay Chessir of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, would offer even lip service to the general concept of more disclosure.

What's Chessir got to do with it? Glad you asked. He's more evidence of the clandestine nature of political campaigns. His name appears nowhere on the Committee for Little Rock Future's paper work. Yet he was called by lawyer Crass to defend the committee's filing procedure. Though records don't reflect it, the chamber stage-managed the entire campaign, from money raising, to figurehead leaders to implementation. As Ethics Commission counsel Rita Looney noted, in calling my complaint "meritorious," the Markham Group spent money as instructed and in behalf of those who hired them. McLarty contended secrecy was important to protect "proprietary" campaign strategy. This is laughable. That same information is disclosed routinely by committees for political candidates, as opposed to ballot issues, and sometimes it's disclosed voluntarily by ballot committees.

The Ethics Commission, given a chance to broadly construe law, narrowly construed it in a way that promotes secrecy. It was legally defensible. But mark this now: when the ethics regulators try to fix the law, the Chamber of Commerce, its hired cutouts and the moneyed interests will argue for continued secrecy. And as I learned again last week, money talks.

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