Columns » John Brummett

Playing by the rules

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In the 16th floor office of his securities consulting firm in a downtown Little Rock tower, Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson let me spend the better part of an hour challenging his ethics.


Our subject was his cashing in — to use a term he won’t like, but which seems to apply in so many cases— on his service as under-secretary in the federal Homeland Security Department.


I proposed that the matter came down to two questions:


1. A recent takeout on cashing in that appeared in The New York Times featured Hutchinson in part. It made clear that everything he did was supported by rules. But it also suggested that he complied only with the letter, and not spirit, of ethics laws. The Times quoted an official with a watchdog group as saying maneuverings like Asa’s amounted to a “dirty way” to skirt rules. Thus the question: Do the voters of Arkansas, faced with the prospect of making Asa their governor, have reason to question his ethics?


2. Might any of the companies in the homeland securities field that Hutchinson has joined wind up trying to sell some ware or service to the state he would be governing?


Hutchinson introduced a third point: Was anything he did different from, say, what Wesley Clark, Mack McLarty or James Lee Witt did? When I replied that Asa was running for governor as he availed himself of federal service to pursue private sector enrichment, Asa countered that Clark, shortly after leaving the Army, “was in my office” at Homeland Security advocating for clients. Soon Clark was running for president.


Asa stressed that he wasn’t accusing the general or anyone of doing anything wrong. To the contrary, he was citing their appropriateness to support his own.


Hutchinson said that in a perfect world an official might leave a federal agency without even having begun to pursue private sector job opportunities. But he said he was not a wealthy man and that he was only doing what his dad always told him — which was to have a job lined up — when he began talking with a prestigious Washington law firm, which he’s now left, before leaving Homeland Security.
Such discussions are forbidden by rule, but waivers are permitted. Hutchinson signed a waiver vowing not to participate in any departmental matter potentially affecting the law firm.


As to whether waivers ought to be permitted, Hutchinson said that was a worthy debate. But when I asked him how he came down on it, he said he was running for governor, not federal office, and believed we needed tighter rules for state officials and legislators who become lobbyists.


Regarding his dispatching to meetings two aides not barred from lobbying, as he was, Hutchinson simply reiterated that his employees were not under any prohibition. He added that his ban has now expired and that he could lobby but doesn’t.


On my second point, about whether any of the firms with which he’s associated might end up doing business with the state while he was governor, Hutchinson figured that two of them conceivably might. One is in biometrics security and had a prison security contract with the state of Pennsylvania.


Should a potential conflict arise, “I’d examine it closely and, if it presented a conflict, I’d resign my directorship,” Hutchinson said.


He contended that if his sole goal was personal enrichment, he wouldn’t have run for governor, but more aggressively availed himself of opportunities.


He’s not doing badly, on paper at least. A start-up company called Fortress America that brought him in for $2,800 in stock has now gone public and acquired a data security firm. Hutchinson’s stock, which he can’t sell for a couple of years, has a face value of about a million dollars.


I assured Hutchinson that I’d be attempting to talk with state Sen. Mike Beebe about his close friendships among lobbyists, which I’ve long found malodorous.


It may be that the only thing easier than ethics charges in this governor’s race will be the counter-punches.

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