The Arkansas Legislative Council executive committee gave permission on Thursday (June 15) for the Bureau of Legislative Research to hire outside legal counsel, a move designed to help the legislative research group cope with requests from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and possibly other investigatory agencies.
With little discussion, the request was approved at an executive committee meeting on Thursday and the subject did not come up at the full Arkansas Legislative Council meeting on Friday, although an executive committee report was provided.
Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) director Marty Garrity tells Talk Business & Politics that there have been inquiries that her bureau is not certain how to handle.
“We’ve just been contacted by various entities indicating that they are going to be wanting information that we hold in our possession. We feel that that’s confidential to the member and we plan to try to protect that as much as possible,” Garrity said.
She did not identify the nature of the agencies that have contact BLR, but at least three Talk Business & Politics sources confirm that the FBI has been probing for information related to a recent investigation and charges involving legislators’ uses of General Improvement Funds (GIF).
The FBI investigation has resulted in charges brought earlier this year against two former state lawmakers. Former State Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, and former State Senator Jon Woods, R-Springdale, have been involved in the questionable distribution of GIF to local nonprofits. Neal pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. Woods has been charged with money laundering and honest services mail fraud and wire fraud in connection with a kickback and bribery scheme that involved Neal and the two nonprofits.
“I think in general what they’re looking for is what we consider ‘working documents’ of members, so be it bill drafts, any communication that they might hold that are in our possession – those are the things that we feel are confidential and we’re not sure our responsibility to release them,” Garrity said. “Until we’re obligated by a certain entity, by a court, it’s our intention not to release them.”
Garrity said the documents in question that require the additional outside legal advice are items that are exempted from the state’s Freedom of Information Act, such as drafts and communications between lawmakers and staff. She said she’s not sure how quickly investigative requests may move or when she will engage outside legal counsel, but wanted to have permission in place to do so as formal requests are made.
“From what I understand, it’s an ongoing investigation and that’s part of the issue. I don’t know what I can and can’t release to any extent,” said Garrity. “I think we’re waiting to see how this develops.”