Arkansas Senate votes to punish lawmakers for recent ethics violations
The Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to punish Republican senators Mark Johnson of Ferndale and Alan Clark of Lonsdale for violating reimbursement rules. Both apologized for their actions.
In June, Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, filed a complaint against the two for Johnson signing Clark's name on a sign in sheet at a Boys State meeting Clark did not attend. That would allow Clark to receive reimbursement for mileage. A 62 page report published by the committee says text messages were voluntarily provided by Johnson showing Clark telling him to sign his name at the meeting.
The penalties senators approved had been recommended by the Senate Ethics Committee after conducting hearings last month. They 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
Since Hickey filed the violation, he relinquished his duties Thursday as presiding officer to Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who had previously served as the Senate president pro tempore. The hearings for Clark and Johnson were held separately. Speaking to colleagues before the vote, Clark said he regretted his action, but did it because he was feeling ill.
“I had two hours of sleep and was running a fever. Had I come on over and signed in, we wouldn’t be here,” Clark said. “I had the idea again of not making the teenagers sick. Having said that, I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
Twenty-six senators voted to penalize Clark, with Jason Rapert, R-Conway, and Clark abstaining, while Johnson voted present. Some senators were excused from the hearing.
Prior to voting on the penalties for Clark, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, filed a motion to lessen the penalties. Ballinger wanted to limit the penalties to be for 90 days instead of the rest of the year. Ballinger said his reason for wanting to lessen the penalties was a way to show grace to the two for owning up to their mistakes. The Senate voted against Ballinger’s motion.
Prior to his vote, Rapert said he didn’t believe the violation was worthy of a hearing and punishment.
“We have all seen members that have a habit of popping in committees and signing in, then leaving. Nobody ever says anything,” Rapert said. “Well at least some of us say something, but many of us are wondering how in the world that can be an existing common practice that’s well known.”
Rapert also said he is concerned with the process itself. He cautioned lawmakers that they are setting a low standard for what an ethics violation is and suggested the process could be used as political theater.
Sen. Johnson’s hearing
During Johnson's hearing, he said he didn’t agree with the committee's conclusion that he knew Clark wasn’t at the meeting. But he acknowledged it was wrong for him to sign Clark's name.
“I did something I shouldn’t have done, whether it was inattentiveness or not paying close enough attention to what he had texted me or whatever,” Johnson said. “But I did sign his name and that was wrong.”
There were 29 votes in favor of penalizing Johnson, with Johnson joining the group. Clark voted against penalizing Johnson and Rapert abstained.
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, filed a motion to send records and documents from the hearing to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office. Hickey urged lawmakers to vote against the motion.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, agreed with Sample's request.
“It offends me to think that we as elected as senators are above some kind of criminal process,” Flowers said. “There’s people all over the state of Arkansas and all over this country that have to suffer criminal consequences for unemployment and insurance benefits.”
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, filed a motion which was passed to end the meeting and discussion on Sample’s motion.
In an interview afterward, Sample said he filed the motion in response to constituents telling him they’re concerned about the process being politicized.
“My objective to take and make that motion was to clear the Senate’s name, not to sweep it under the rug,” Sample said. “Let an officer of the courts decide whether there was a law broken or not.”
Sample said he wouldn't take any further steps to have the matter considered by the prosecutor’s office.
Creation of the committee
The Senate Ethics Committee was created three years ago. According to the Associated Press, at that time Clark voted against the new ethics rules.
Last week Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, who was Senate president pro tempore when the committee was formed, told KUAR News that this week’s hearing with Clark and Johnson was the first major case taken by the committee.
In a phone interview, Hickey said he is sending letters to Senate staff letting them know that Clark and Johnson won’t be chairmen of their committees. Clark has served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary. He will still be allowed to be a member of the committee, but Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, will take Clark’s place as chair.
KUAR News reached out to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office to see whether he felt the hearings were conducted properly. A response was not immediately provided. Hutchinson is a former lawyer, prosecutor and was in office while ethics rules were overhauled.