Columns » John Brummett

Shell games and airplanes

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The state attorney general — the person, not the whole office — doesn't do much of a real job and enjoys a political standing all out of proportion to the work he does.

So he travels around with faux importance effectively running for higher office, usually governor but sometimes U.S. senator.

That's not to single out the current one, Dustin McDaniel. It's simply to add him to the all-star list covering Jim Guy Tucker, Bill Clinton, Steve Clark, Winston Bryant, Mark Pryor and Mike Beebe.

All were out of the office as much as in, speaking to civic clubs and professional groups in search of a better office while dozens of usually young and fortunately competent lawyers did the actual legal work, be it litigation or client services for state agencies or issuing advisory opinions.

That's pretty much the sum of the responsibilities. People think the attorney general is a crime-fighting prosecutor, but he isn't. We have regional prosecuting attorneys for that.

Steve Clark found plenty of time to go to expensive dinners and lie about his guests for exorbitant reimbursement on his state credit card. Winston Bryant got involved in youth suicide or missing children, I forget which. He was against both.

The attorney general can embrace all manner of nice-sounding interests like that and use the exaggerated standing of his office to get on television for free doing public service announcements about whichever of these nice-sounding interests he has decided to champion.

Meantime, important people don't like to drive anymore. They're far too busy. They'll remind you that Arkansas is bigger than it looks. Not every trip starts in Little Rock.

Just try driving from Dermott to Bella Vista. Why that's 10 or 11 hours round-trip. An attorney general doesn't have time for that. Well, he does, actually. But it doesn't seem from the important-sounding nature of his office that he ought to have time.

And why he was starting from Dermott in the first place, and why would he return there?

McDaniel is running as hard as he can for governor in 2014, which is to say he'll be glad to come talk to your border-city Rotary Club.

He'll fly up. He'll tell you what a good job he's doing. He'll fly back.

Perhaps you wonder what he'll been flying on. That would be your tab.

McDaniel has his own plane and is himself a pilot, but he says state reimbursements for one's own aircraft won't even cover fuel.

But there's the prison plane. It turns out it was free, for a while.

Six years ago the State Police was wanting to get rid of its little four-seater plane and step up to something worthy of Mike Huckabee. The Correction Department, meaning the state prison, decided it needed a plane because, with so many people going to jail in so many varied places anymore, it was getting harder for prison brass to drive from one set of cells to the other.

So the prison traded the State Police $119,000 worth of rent on office space in Pine Bluff in exchange for this plane.

Then McDaniel, looking around for transportation befitting the faux importance of his elected position, started asking for, and getting granted, permission to take this plane to a speech whenever it was an inconvenient drive. He's used the plane a little less than once a month over the last couple of years.

Then the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported over the weekend that the prison people had neglected to send the attorney general's office a bill for about $10,000 in plane costs until the paper brought it to the prison's, and the attorney general's, attention.

It's just a shell game with taxpayer money, anyway.

The attorney general's office takes money from you to give to the Correction Department for use of a plane you bought twice, first for cash for the State Police and then in exchange for rent the Correction Department forgave the State Police but could have collected.

It's a heck of a deal all around, especially for your probable next governor, now the attorney general.

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