The Arkansas Ethics Commission will meet in Little Rock July 22 to discuss whether Gov. Asa Hutchinson violated state law on campaign practices. If prosecuted and found guilty, Hutchinson could be removed from office.
Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell on March 31 filed a complaint with the commission regarding Hutchinson’s appearance at two events from 7:30 until 11 a.m. on Feb. 29 on behalf of Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, who defeated his primary challenger March 1.
Arkansas law bans a “public servant” from campaigning for other candidates “during usual office hours.” The offense, if it were to be prosecuted by a prosecuting attorney, is a Class A misdemeanor, which potentially is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine, and removal from office.
“When this case comes before the Commission at the July 22 meeting, the Commission will be called upon to decide whether or not probable cause exists for a finding that Asa Hutchinson violated Ark. Code Ann. § 7-l-103(a)(2)(A)(i) in his capacity as Governor by devoting any time or labor during usual office hours toward the campaign of any other candidate for office in connection with appearing at two campaign events in support of State Senator Eddie Joe Williams on or about Monday, February 29, 2016,” noted a section of a July 12 letter from Arkansas Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan to Campbell.
Campbell on Tuesday (July 19) told Talk Business & Politics he is happy with the commission’s willingness to pursue the issue.
“Back in February, Governor Hutchinson told me that this law was pretty clear and ‘could be a problem’ for him if he campaigned for legislators. He said this only weeks before he chose to campaign for Eddie Joe Williams on state time. So, at the very least, I am glad to see that the Ethics Commission is taking flagrant violations of the law more seriously than the Governor chose to,” Campbell said.
Hutchinson Spokesman J.R. Davis said Tuesday that Gov. Hutchinson will not attend the July 22 meeting.
“We believe the complaint is without merit because a governor by both tradition and constitutional right does not abandon his or her rights to campaign just because they are elected,” Davis said in an e-mail statement to Talk Business & Politics.
In April, Davis said in a statement that “it is a shame that an important body such as the Ethics Commission is being used for political purposes.”
“That was the fear of the creation of the Ethics Commission from the beginning that it would be used for partisan attacks, and it is the Governor’s expectation that the Ethics Commission not only handle this issue fairly but that it also starts coming down on those who file frivolous complaints in the future,” Davis noted in the April statement.
The March 31 filing grew from an earlier complaint filed by Campbell against Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and State Treasurer Dennis Milligan. Campbell alleged that the two had violated the law when they campaigned in Iowa during office hours for GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The Ethics Commission ruled that the two did not violate the law because Huckabee was a candidate for federal office and therefore did not meet the commission’s definition of a candidate. The commission ruled that “public office” refers to offices created by the state of Arkansas or its subdivisions, not a federal office.
Campbell said in an April interview that the first ruling set the stage for this investigation.
“I think really with the way they kind of punted on the Milligan and Rutledge thing and drew this distinction between state and federal candidates, they didn’t really have any choice but to move forward on this one,” he said.
In an opinion column for Talk Business & Politics, former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said the law was first passed in 1969 and has been amended more than a dozen times since, as late as 2013. McDaniel wrote that elected officials campaigning during office hours for other candidates has long been common practice, and that he himself has done so. However, the statute of limitations is one year. McDaniel suggested that the Ethics Commission ruling on Campbell’s complaint against Rutledge and Milligan may have opened the door to legal jeopardy when state officials campaign for other state officials.