The community of Ozark, nestled along the Arkansas River, is memorable to me as a primo place for delicious hickory-smoked ribs from the popular Rivertowne Barbecue.
Today, the government in that town of 3,600 has been burned by allegations of corruption and Freedom of Information Act violations, and most of the smoke swirls around City Hall, prompting calls for a special prosecutor.
The problems there stem from concerns by mayoral candidate Steve Whiteaker, who has accused the city clerk of misspending public funds and destroying documents, questionable spending within the fire department, and FOIA violations by three members of the city council after he'd issued numerous FOIA requests for public records, which revealed questions about how Ozark's financial affairs were being managed.
Reporters John Lovett of Fort Smith's Southwest Times Record and Dave Hughes from this paper have been on the story to provide readers with details, including that Fifth Judicial District Prosecutor David Gibbons says he will request a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations.
A special prosecutor is necessary because Gibbons' deputy prosecutor for Franklin County also serves as Ozark's city attorney.
Whiteaker's curiosity over community expenditures was piqued when he attended a council meeting in November 2017 after returning to his hometown. That's where he openly questioned spending public monies to build a $10 million community and aquatic center without the economic means to support one.
At subsequent meetings he would question the private use of public funds by both Clerk Sonya Eveld and her husband, Kevin Eveld, the former Ozark fire chief who was also construction manager for that community center. Kevin resigned as chief in June following Whiteaker's inquiries.
Lovett also writes that receipts to the city acquired by Whiteaker under the Freedom of Information Act "show apparent personal use of a Bank of America credit card issued to the city of Ozark. Some examples include multiple purchases of 'Amazon Services-Kindle,' a $7 makeup mirror, a $177 wooden cabinet shipped to the Evelds' home address, as well as a Glock gun holster."
Whiteaker says he's received constant attempts by city officials to intimidate him since he began raising questions. He also told me the checks in question had been acquired, which reportedly showed the Evelds appeared to reimburse the city for the charges with personal checks. The question for auditors obviously becomes when and if those checks were actually deposited.
Seems to me Gibbons is correct. The only way truth can emerge from the smoke is through an audit requested by a special prosecutor.
Joey McCutchen, the bulldog FOIA attorney from Fort Smith and Whiteaker's attorney in numerous FOIA complaints filed against the city in July, put it another way when he told Lovett: "You can't rob a bank and then give the money back. The city can't operate as a payday loan business."
Ozark Mayor T.R. McNutt said the Arkansas Legislative Audit Division has been conducting a special audit of the fire department for three months with no findings of criminal activity, and city offices are audited annually. "We're an open book," McNutt told Lovett. "As for fraud or theft, they [auditors] haven't found anything."
However, Whiteaker told me the city council at its June meeting requested the mayor seek a fire department audit dating to 2015, and assumed their directive would be expedited, which the mayor agreed to. Yet the mayor later said he didn't request one until August.
Queried at one council meeting, Whiteaker said McNutt offered no satisfactory explanation for the delay. Moreover, when Whiteaker checked with legislative audit as late as this month, he said he was told a special audit had not been requested and the only state inquiry had been the same general audit regularly conducted on Arkansas cities.
Asked his opinion of where things now stand, McCutchen told me, "The mayor admitted the city clerk used public money to pay her private debts. The city of Ozark should stop playing games. City officials have doctored official minutes. They have refused to produce or have destroyed official audio tapes of council meetings. Council members have held secret meetings through text messages, and after the council voted for a special audit of the fire department, nobody took any action to request one--not the mayor, not the city clerk. Now it's apparent with limited information the city provided that the city clerk has been paying her personal debts with a city credit card."
McCutchen said he'd also spoken recently with the auditor's office. "This audit has not been finalized, and for Ozark city officials to suggest at this point that criminal activity has been ruled out is putting the cart before the horse," McCutchen said. "This speaks to the importance of FOIA because it enabled a citizen to request documents that looked out of the ordinary. Without one of the strongest FOIA laws in the country, there would be no accountability for this type of conduct."
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 10/30/2018