The Ethics Commission is moving forward on investigating Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a possible violation of Arkansas campaign laws.
Attorney Matt Campbell, publisher of The Blue Hog Report website, filed a complaint March 31 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.
Under Arkansas law, “It shall be unlawful for any public servant … to devote any time or labor during usual office hours toward the campaign of any other candidate for office or for the nomination to any office.” The words “public servant” refer to “all public officials, public employees, and public appointees.”
State employees may work on campaigns during office hours if they take vacation time to do so. Elected officials do not have vacation time.
In a letter to Campbell dated April 14, Graham Sloan, Arkansas Ethics Commission director, wrote that the complaint met requirements contained in the Ethics Commission’s Rules of Practice and Procedure and that an investigation is beginning. 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.
Hutchinson’s spokesman, J.R. Davis, said in an emailed statement, “It’s an obvious fact that governors do engage in campaign activity. That tradition has gone on for decades in our state by Democrat and Republican governors, and the assumption is that the Ethics Commission will apply the law logically and consistently with that history.
“However 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.”
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 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.
Campbell said he is waiting on the Ethics Commission to let him know whether there will be a probable cause hearing, which he would attend. As for predictions, he said, “My gut feeling is that they’ll find some way to justify it or hedge and say that it’s not a violation of the statute. … Maybe I’m just jaded with the way that they’ve sort of punted on some stuff lately, but I can’t imagine that they’re going to actually find a violation here because of how serious the outcome is if they find a violation.”
He said he is hoping the Ethics Commission will clarify what the statute actually prohibits. He laughed when asked if he wants the governor to go to jail.
“I’m not so interested in the misdemeanor criminal side of it as I am with the actual, the ethical side of it,” he said. “If you’re not supposed to do it, then don’t.”