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Arkansas Senate Ethics Committee publishes report on reimbursement probe

After an executive session that lasted about five hours, lawmakers voted to penalize Senators Mark Johnson of Little Rock and Alan Clark – both Republicans.
Ronak Patel
During a meeting of the Arkansas Senate Ethics Committee on June 27, lawmakers voted on recommendations to penalize senators Mark Johnson and Alan Clark.

The Arkansas Senate Ethics Committee has released a report with findings from an investigation of two lawmakers who were alleged to have violated state reimbursement laws. Next week, the full Senate is expected to consider whether to penalize senators Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, and Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale.

In June, Senate President Pro Tem Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, filed a complaint against the two for Johnson signing Clark's name on a sign in at a Boys State meeting Clark didn’t attend. That would allow Clark to be reimbursed per diem and mileage.

The 62-page report includes text messages sent to Johnson from Clark telling him to sign his name at the meeting which he says he wasn’t able to attend due to having a fever. In his testimony, Clark questioned whether this was worthy of an ethics violation because he was sick and needed the reimbursement since he had stayed overnight.

Committee members responded that Clark was at the Capitol the day before for a separate meeting where he was paid per diem and mileage and that should have covered those costs. The committee also said illness is a personal reason and not legislative.

In an interview with KUAR News, Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, said this case will be the first major complaint considered by the Senate Ethics Committee. He was Senate president pro tem when the committee was created in 2019. He said it was a priority after several members of the House and Senate were criminally indicted.

“It was a direct response to just watching our colleagues time and time again make poor decisions that reflected poorly on the peoples’ legislators and the ones who are supposed to be serving the people instead of themselves,” Hendren said.

Before the creation of the committee, senators had the ability to take action against their colleagues, but there wasn’t any procedures or process to conduct investigations.

“I’ve been in the legislature for 16 years and I have never seen what is taking place today, which is the Senate taking steps to deal with potential missteps of its own body,” Hendren said. “Prior to that it was pretty much left up to the president of the Senate or the speaker of the House to take actions as they deemed appropriate. There was no method or committee to investigate or determine whether it was a valid accusation or whether it was just somebody playing politics or trying to get some political advantage.”

Hendren said he used a model at the federal level and one used in the military to help craft the rules and procedures of the committee. He added that having a committee helps keep members in line when there is a process in place that is fair to both the accused and the Senate itself.

When the Senate Ethics Committee was created, Hendren said there was some criticism about its effectiveness since lawmakers would be policing themselves. Some critics thought the rules wouldn’t be used and members wouldn’t hold each other accountable. He added the recent actions show the committee is capable of holding lawmakers accountable.

“I knew we had enough members of integrity in the Senate that when we saw some of our colleagues doing things that brought dishonor to the entire institution to deal with that,” Hendren said. “We care about each other, but I hope there are more of us who care more about the integrity of the institution to do that.”

Hendren said he restricted complaints being considered by the committee to those originating by members of the Senate to avoid turning it into a “political stage” anyone could use for partisan advantage.

“We tried to strike a balance and I think we have done that,” Hendren said.

Details of committee report

As part of the investigation, the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, interviewed members of the Senate staff. Johnson is part of the Ethics Committee and was removed for this case and replaced by Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville.

Constituent Advisor Leigh Ann Golden-Smith, in a memo to Director of the Arkansas Senate Ann Cornwell said that Johnson asked her for the sign-in sheet for the Boys State meeting on June 3, which was no longer available since the meeting ended. Golden-Smith wrote that she noticed Johnson's name listed earlier and asked him about that. Johnson told her he was signing in on behalf of Clark who wasn’t at the Capitol. Since the sign-in sheets were taken up, Golden-Smith told Johnson to speak with Sabrina Lewellen, deputy director of the Arkansas Senate, and Golden-Smith said she overheard Johnson tell Lewellen he wanted to sign in for Clark.

In the report, all of the Senate staff said they didn’t see Clark at the Boys State meeting on June 3. Cornwell said she approached Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and Senate pro tem elect, about Johnson signing in for Clark.

Hester called Clark about the incident and Clark told Hester he was sick and didn’t attend the meeting. Hickey was made aware of the incident by Hester. Text messages between Hester and Hickey show both agreed to direct Cornwell not to pay Clark per diem and mileage. Documents provided by the Arkansas Senate show that Clark wasn’t paid per diem for the meeting.

During his testimony, Clark said the committee couldn’t provide any laws that he broke. In the report, the committee cited Arkansas Code 10-2-212 as one of the laws Clark broke.

“A member of the General Assembly shall not file with the House of Representatives or Senate claims of per diem or mileage reimbursement in excess of the amount prescribed by the law,” the committee wrote.

The Senate Ethics Committee also said Clark violated Senate Rule 24.06, which prohibits members from financial conflicts of interest.

Next week, the full Senate is expected to vote whether to penalize Johnson and Clark.

Penalties for the lawmakers include:

  • A letter of reprimand
  • Removal as committee chair or co-chair for the remainder of the rest of the 93rd General Assembly
  • Losing eligibility for per diem and mileage for the remainder of the 93rd General Assembly
  • Losing future considering to serve on the Boys State, Girls State and Senate Ethics Committee

When asked after the June 27 meeting by reporters if there were any other ethics violations being investigated, Hammer said there were not.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.