Columns » Max Brantley

Sleaze watch

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You thought Republican control of the legislature would change things? Evidence to the contrary follows that we dug up last week on the Arkansas Blog:

First there was Sen. Missy Irvin holding a fund-raiser at a luxury Little Rock condo (for reelection to her seat based in remote Stone County). The Senate rules allow in-session fundraising. House rules don't. But even some of the sleazier members of the Senate recognize the ill-appearance of sticking a hand out to lobbyists while the voting machine is operating. Lobbyists packed Irvin's fund-raiser.

Irvin defended herself by saying the legislature is only passing budget bills, not setting policy. This, on the eve of the most critical policy vote in years, continuation of Medicaid expansion. Irvin, wife of a prosperous doctor, is an opponent.

Then there was former Sen. Gilbert Baker, who left the legislature through an ethics loophole at the end of 2012 to become a $132,000 lobbyist for the University of Central Arkansas. It's higher pay for essentially a job he already had, bundling campaign contributions for Republican candidates and like-minded judicial candidates.

While in the legislature, Baker was paid $60,000 a year by the shadowy Faith and Freedom Coalition to use its secretively raised money to pump $200,000 into electing the Republican majority. Now he gets more than twice the pay and all from the public teat.

Baker was point man on a recent $100,000 haul for Republican House candidate Stacy Hurst of Little Rock. He's been tapping friends in the nursing home industry, developed during his on-the-floor work for tort reform, for this and judicial races. He helped Rhonda Wood of Conway, an Arkansas Supreme Court candidate, who got at least $70,000 of the $132,000 she reported in her first finance report from the nursing home industry. The money came in bundles, with multiple contributions from different corporate entities of the same parent, such as Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Morton contributed heavily to Wood, but other nursing home friends did most of the heavy lifting in providing a third of the campaign contributions of Conway Court of Appeals candidate Michael Maggio. Maggio gave a Morton nursing home a whopping $4 million reduction in a $5 million unanimous jury verdict for the suffering of a patient who died after his nursing home failed to follow a physician's instructions for hospital admission. Maggio, a circuit judge, said the verdict "shocked the conscience." This is the kind of conscience that nursing homes and Gilbert Baker want on the court.

UCA President Tom Courtway told me he saw no problem with Baker's bundling as long as Baker works on his own time — whatever that means. Baker doesn't work on a time clock. Schmoozing the legislature is his primary reason for public employment. Where does representing UCA end and representing another lobby begin?

Democrats raised hell about the disclosure of Baker's activities and even held up the UCA budget for a day. Courtway has promised a new and cleaner day at scandal-plagued UCA. But I'm skeptical there will be much change in the behavior of the UCA-paid advocate for nursing home and Republican interests.

I think Baker's activities reflect a general Republican view that their total domination of Arkansas politics is at hand. They will be the sole deciders of what is proper in the political arena. Courtway, to keep UCA money flowing, has no choice, but to go along. Ethics and appearances don't count. Only the bottom line.

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