Secretary of State Mark Martin’s attorneys rejected a blogger’s claim this week that the secretary has no authority to pay private attorneys to represent his office in a lawsuit about the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Martin, who has two attorneys on his staff, is paying $200 an hour to hire Chad Pekron and Joseph W. Price II of the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow law firm in Little Rock to defend him in a suit filed July 1.
Lawyer and liberal blogger Matt Campbell, who brought the suit against Martin, asked Pulaski County Judge Tim Fox on Wednesday to disqualify Martin’s counsel from representing the office under Arkansas Code Annotated 25-16-702, which states that the attorney general is the state’s attorney and it is left to the attorney general, with the permission of legislators and the governor, to decide when to hire outside legal counsel.
Pekron argued in his response, filed electronically late Thursday, that the attorney general represents agencies and constitutional officers when his service is needed and the secretary wasn’t required to use the attorney general or his own staff.
Pekron points to a 1953 Arkansas Supreme Court case, Parker v. Murry, in which the court found that the attorney general could intervene in a suit “when and only when” needed.
“This need may arise, for example, when it is shown that the State’s interests are being jeopardized by neglect, refusal to act, or inefficiency on the part of counsel,” the opinion states.
Pekron writes that the Parker case shows a constitutional officer does not have to hand over to the attorney general every case involving his office unless the officer decides he needs help.
The Legislature allocated $265,012 for professional fees, which Martin chose to use to hire outside attorneys, Pekron wrote.
Campbell said Friday that Martin seems to argue that he can ignore a statute because the Legislature appropriated money to his office.
“I assume that most Arkansans will find this argument as absurd as I do,” Campbell said.
Secretary of state spokesman Alex Reed said the two attorneys employed by the secretary of state’s office have other responsibilities. General counsel Martha Adcock is writing rules and regulations for the state’s new voter identification law. Deputy Secretary of State A.J. Kelly oversees the business and election divisions of the office.
He said it’s better to hire outside attorneys on a “need-by-need basis; then we don’t have attorneys sitting around,”
Also, Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull and Burrow specialize in Freedom of Information Act issues, he said.
The firm hosts the Arkansas Press Association’s question hotline.
Also Thursday, Pekron submitted an answer to Campbell’s initial complaint. In it, Martin denies the allegation that Reed did not provide requested emails and attached files that were exchanged between staff attorneys and an outside law firm hired to help defend the secretary of state in two discrimination and wrongful-termination lawsuits.
Campbell wrote in his complaint to the court that Reed provided only some of the email attachments and not in the requested format.
The secretary of state later provided some of the documents through Pekron, Campbell said. He was told that two documents were destroyed and two documents saved as a PDF could not be released because they included personnel information and the secretary of state cannot redact information from a PDF, according to a letter from Pekron that was submitted as evidence by Campbell.
Campbell has been critical of Martin for years on his blog, the Blue Hog Report.
Much of Campbell’s past criticism was based on hundreds of pages of information received from the secretary of state under Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act.
Campbell stopped blogging in May 2011 after the state Republican Party filed its own Freedom of Information Act request for documents about Campbell’s employment as a staff attorney with the Arkansas Supreme Court, as well as his email and telephone records. Party spokesmen said at the time that they were concerned Campbell was blogging on state time.
Campbell left the Supreme Court in May to open his own law firm. Campbell returned to blogging after leaving state government.