Columns » Max Brantley

On the other hand …

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The Arkansas Ethics Commission voted 5-0 last week to dismiss a complaint I filed against Gov. Mike Huckabee concerning money raised to pay for his inaugural parties in January 2003. The Commission concluded that the Republican Party had properly accounted for the money. Huckabee commented afterward that my complaint was a frivolous, partisan attack. My response? Mansion furniture. Early in the governor's tenure, the Arkansas Times uncovered the fact that the Huckabees had gone on a shopping spree courtesy of a wealthy cotton planter. They acquired $70,000 worth of furnishings for their private quarters at the Governor's Mansion. Huckabee, and his lawyer, asserted that the furniture belonged to the Huckabees. This gift grab created a problem for Huckabee in a later ethics lawsuit. For one thing, the governor's statement of financial interest did not accurately report the source of the gift. After the complications arose, Huckabee and his attorney changed their stories. They said the furniture was not a personal gift to the Huckabee family after all. It was a gift to the state. Now the inaugural fund. Once again, stories appear to have changed. Late last year, news broke of huge money problems at the state Republican Party. At the time, the Republican Party's treasurer, in preparing a 2004 budget, said his figures did not include $60,000 in the governor's inaugural fund. Why? He said Brenda Turner, the governor's chief of staff, controlled the checkbook. The treasurer, Blair Fortner, and the Republican Party's interim finance chairman, Jim Hendren, said they had asked Turner for help with party bills, but the governor's office "indicated that these funds had already been appropriated for other activities." This was the crux of my complaint, filed only after the governor's staff and state party officials repeatedly refused to answer questions. I also filed it only after receiving an assurance from the Commission staff that the complaint didn't seem baseless on its face. I knew from the outset that an old Ethics Commission advisory opinion says a political party may raise money for an inaugural (including the cost of fancy clothes for the First Lady, apparently) and TRANSFER (my emphasis) the surplus for general party use. But if the surplus reverts to the control of a public official, this could amount to an improper gift. To be cleared, Huckabee had to convince the Ethics Commissioners that the surplus inaugural money was not his to control -- despite the public statements by others that indicated otherwise. He had to convince them that the money was then and is now the Republican Party's money. He apparently did that. I'd remind those who cry partisanship that these were Republicans who had indicated the governor's office treated the inaugural fund as its own. Good news from the decision: It's indisputable that the inaugural fund can't be used as a Huckabee slush fund. Plus, if it still contains $60,000, that would be just about enough to repay the college scholarship fund that a former Republican Party employee plundered last year. Since the governor disclaims control of the money, there's no reason somebody can't cut a check to replenish the scholarship fund pronto. Right?

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