MASTERSON ONLINE: No ‘party’ of graft

Lest one mistakenly believe any good-ol’-boy’s love of illicit money and scheming ways to pocket it is limited largely to one political party, I assure readers it is indeed an equal-opportunity enterprise.

Far too many Republican and Democrat public servants alike for ages have been guilty of lining their pockets from public coffers.

Granted, it’s comforting to believe the guilty most often belong to a one political party. But reality says that’s naive thinking in an integrity-based system of government sadly tainted by so much corruption.

Look no further, for instance, than the state senator and a former representative who’ve lately pleaded guilty to misusing the state’s former General Improvement Fund grant program. A third former legislator is facing trial. As readers likely know, the GIF program, later determined to be unconstitutional, was designed to help communities with their most pressing needs rather than promoting graft. If I sound disgusted by it all, it’s because I am.

Former Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale and Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith, both Republicans, already have admitted guilt in federal court to separate scams that used their public influence to pocket thousands of GIF dollars.

Files, chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, pleaded guilty to wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering. He’d been charged with misusing GIF monies and pledging a forklift as collateral that he didn’t even own. Files also pocketed thousands of dollars in a scheme to create and manage a badly needed recreational park in Fort Smith that never was built despite thousands of taxpayer dollars being raised toward that goal.

Neal pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud involving $550,000 in GIF funds directed to Springdale’s Ecclesia College and a resulting handsome kickback for his thoughtful influence and assistance.

Then we have Republican former Sen. Jon Woods, who faces trial in April along with Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia, and Randell Shelton, a business consultant, on charges of being involved in the Ecclesia mess. They’ve all pleaded innocent. Woods and Neal also were accused of taking kickbacks in a GIF grant to the nonprofit Ameriworks of Bentonville.

For his part in both schemes, Neal received payoffs totaling $38,000, according to records and a new account by veteran reporter Doug Thompson.

I’ve wondered previously how Neal, a popular Springdale restaurant owner before he waded into the muck of politics, could consider sacrificing his reputation and integrity for $38,000 he knew was illicit. What makes any decent person ruin all they have built? Believing they won’t get caught because other colleagues have been getting away with it?

So, valued friends, the next time you hear someone raving about how crooked one political party is over the other, remember ol’ Mike’s assessment that each has an entire crate of farm-fresh jumbo eggs on its face when it come to self-dealing members. Sad stuff.

Mansfield Mayhem

Meanwhile, over in contentious Mansfield, the city government admitted it violated the Freedom of Information Act by exchanging text messages to discuss city business rather than notifying the public and conducting their business in the open. Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who sued the city over its violation and represents embattled Mayor Larry Austin after the council voted to remove Austin’s powers, said a sheriff’s office criminal investigation is ongoing.

“The city of Mansfield has not restored the powers to the mayor we believe were unlawfully taken,” said McCutchen. “The law provides the mayor is the city’s chief executive officer charged with supervising the conduct of all city officers and examining complaints against them. While the council’s actions have taken the powers of the mayor as CEO, we’re looking forward to a ruling before the city court.”

I’ll bet they are, since I’ve never heard of a city council’s legal right to strip an elected mayor of his or her legal responsibilities. Have you?

Three human flaws

One advantage to having lived seven decades is the experience all those years afford. In the process, I’ve developed my own opinion of the three primary causes of humanity’s most severe shortcomings.

As a disclaimer, I’m far from being a specialist in human behavior, although I’ve sure written about plenty about it over 47 years.

While blessed with higher consciousness, it seems in many ways we human animals choose to strangely ignore the mistakes from our personal and collective pasts. Continual emotional urgings all too often overrule our higher angels and, with it, the ability to utilize that elevated awareness I just mentioned.

At the heart of our inhumanity toward one another are greed, envy and insecurity. Any one of those generates problems for a person. All three colliding within one almost certainly leads to calamity.

There are other human afflictions of consciousness and conscience, including mental illnesses. But from my view, eliminating these three would create a far more civil world.

Just ask our elected lawmakers who sacrifice honor and respectability by greedily accepting bribes for political favors, or the insecure person who goes on a shooting spree after feeling rejected and demeaned by others.

I can offer no remedy other than each of us recognizing when we are allowing at least one of these three flaws to control our thoughts and inevitable actions. And embracing the Golden Rule.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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