Housing Commission's Ad Buy In Political Program May Head To Attorney General

Dec 15, 2014

(left) AFHC Exec. Dir. Carol Johnson testifying to Leg. Audit - State Agencies in November.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

The Arkansas Fair Housing Commission is facing scrutiny for purchasing an advertisement in 2013 for a Democratic Black Caucus publication. Lawmakers moved forward Monday with plans to involve the state’s attorney general after reviewing an assessment of the commission.

The purchase of an ad in a “souvenir book” for the Democratic Black Caucus’s King-Kennedy scholarship dinner is being described by some legislators as an illegal political contribution. It’s a characterization the director of the state’s Fair Housing Commission, Carol Johnson, told lawmakers she rejects. However, Johnson would not share her thoughts with reporters after the meeting.

“Again, I think I‘m going to reserve my comments. I don’t know if anybody else wants to comment on it but I think I need to reserve my comments for the legislative body until this is over with,” said Johnson.

But Johnson did tell the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on State Agencies the Housing Commission would no longer purchase advertisements in publications related to political parties. While future ad purchases may be agreeable to legislators, the committee is pursuing accountability for the 2013 ad purchase. Chair Nate Bell, a state Representative from Mena, is among those who have voiced dissatisfaction with the commission.

“There’s a possibility of some civil action for recovery and that type of thing if they choose to go forward. But one thing I want to make clear is that we’re not the executive branch. We’re not responsible for enforcing the law. We serve as a referral entity in this instance and we’ll refer what we believe is inappropriate and let appropriate people make that decision,” said Bell.

The committee voted Monday to recommend the full Joint Auditing Committee meet to request the Attorney General’s office review the matter.

Johnson argued the advertisement informed a historically discriminated against protected class, about the services of the Fair Housing Commission. The commission is tasked with reaching out to populations its services benefit.

Representative Bell said regardless of intent and legality, the cost of the ad itself is reason for concern. The audit revealed another state organization – the Black History Commission – purchased an ad for $150.

“This ad costs $1,500. So you know, clearly an ad that costs 10 times what a comprobable ad does should be cause for concern that there’s something more to it than just purchasing an ad,” said Bell.

Rizelle Aaron, the vice president of the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus said the higher price is not tantamount to an intentional contribution but instead a sign of salesmanship.

“There are a number of members of the black caucus that are making phone calls to sell ads. The highest amount is initially, usually the amount that they give or ask for from any department. It’s salesmanship and if somebody agrees to pay that amount then there’s no more discussion,” said Aaron.

The Attorney General's office previously provided the audit committee with a non-binding opinion, arguing the ad purchase – which contains a line “applauding” the efforts of the black caucus for raising awareness about fair housing - is a violation of the law.