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Paid trips to Dallas Cowboys games that were provided to North Little Rock police officers as a benefit approved by the City Council "are not ethically prohibited" under state law, city Attorney Jason Carter said in a formal response to a complaint filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

The gifts of free tickets to the football games at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, along with hotel and travel accommodations, came from Cowboys owner and General Manager Jerry Jones, who grew up in North Little Rock. Jones indicated to department officials at the time he made the offer that it was intended to show support for police in his hometown.

Russ Racop of Little Rock, who writes a blog about topics such as "bad government," filed the ethics complaint Nov. 2.

His complaint said the free Cowboys tickets and other expenses violated Arkansas Code Annotated 21-8-801. That rule states that a public servant cannot receive a gift for "performance of the duties and responsibilities of his or her office or positions" and that gifts valued at more than $100 are likewise prohibited.

The North Little Rock City Council on Oct. 24 approved in a 6-0 vote Resolution 16-165, which accepted the value of the offer from Jones on the city's behalf and passed that value along to police officers as an employee benefit. Officers and their families were able to pick from the Cowboys' last five home games of the season which ones to attend.

In a 10-page response forwarded last week to Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan, Carter wrote that the vote by the City Council to accept Jones' gift on the city's behalf "was squarely within the sole legislative authority" of council members.

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"City Council is authorized to accept donations and routinely does so," Carter said late Thursday about his response. "City Council is authorized to determine benefits for police officers and routinely does so. [Aldermen] voted according to their authority and their conscience, which, in my opinion, is all we can ask them to do."

An ethical violation cannot exist, Carter wrote to the Ethics Commission, because benefits determined by the "appropriate governing body" aren't ethically prohibited under the law cited in the complaint. Carter quoted a portion of the same statute that states that a public servant cannot receive a gift or compensation "other than income and benefits from the governmental body."

"The plain language of the statute exempts income and benefits from the governing body from regulation under state ethics laws," Carter wrote. "It is doubtful that the Arkansas Ethics Commission carries the authority to determine an employee benefit to be an improper gift when the proper governmental authority has determined otherwise."

Mayor Joe Smith said Thursday afternoon that North Little Rock's police officers "are part of the most hardworking, professional Police Department in the country and deserve every benefit the City Council can give them."

The complaint named Jones; Smith; all eight city aldermen; and Michael Gibbons, president of the North Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. The commission later removed Aldermen Maurice Taylor and Charlie Hight from the complaint because both were absent from the Oct. 24 council meeting.

No hearing date on the complaint is scheduled, Sloan said. He added that he cannot comment about complaints that haven't gone before the commission. The commission has 210-240 days to resolve a complaint, he said.

"Sometimes it takes several months," he said.

Gibbons, who had met with Jones, said at the time the City Council accepted the offer that Jones' intent was to recognize police officers from his hometown for their community interaction and service, specifically citing North Little Rock's Police Athletic League that allows community children to participate in athletics and other activities for free. Police officers volunteer as coaches and mentors in the program.

Jones' honoring of North Little Rock police officers drew mention during national telecasts of the Cowboys home games.

"We have police officers that get recognized on national TV, viewed by millions of people, for the amazing work they do in our community," North Little Rock Communications Director Nathan Hamilton said of the publicity. "As the city communications director, it's a dream come true."

Metro on 01/16/2017

Print Headline: City attorney clears police gift

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