At least nine state elected officials have been convicted of corruption since 2010 in Arkansas. Among those convicted are former state treasurer Martha Shoffner, who was convicted of extortion and bribery in 2014, and former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who on June 25 pleaded guilty to felony bribery and tax fraud charges.
But what do these high-profile cases tell us about how we might stop future corruption in the Natural State?
High-profile cases occupy the airwaves, print, and online media, but public corruption takes place at other levels of government as well. According to disposition reports from prosecuting attorneys published by the Arkansas Legislative Audit, there have been at least 189 corruption convictions at other state agencies and local governments between 2010 and 2017. These 189 convictions concern about $13 million of public money.
The $13 million in tax dollars was designated for specific purposes. Theft diverts the money from its intended uses and harms residents. For example, the treasurer in Westside School District in Johnson County misappropriated $178,391 between 2013 and 2017. We don't know exactly what that money would have been used for, but we do know that $178,391 can do a lot: Using the school district's per pupil expenditure ($9,903.88) for the 2017-2018 school year, the misappropriated amount could have paid for the education of 18 students in the school district.
Arkansas should reduce corruption at all levels of government. But how?
Transparency International, a leading anti-corruption international organization, suggests the following in its 2016 report "How to Stop Corruption: 5 Key Ingredients": End impunity for corrupt individuals; reform public administration and finance management; promote transparency and access to information; empower citizens; and close international loopholes.
In Arkansas, there's plenty of work to do on the first four.
If corruption is suspected during a legislative audit, Arkansas Code § 10-4-419 requires that the legislative auditor report all improper and illegal practices to prosecuting attorneys for the county in which the practices occurred so that charges can be brought, and if the individual is found guilty, they are punished.
However, as reported by an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dated Nov. 3, 2018, not many of these reported charges result in convictions. "Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence as reasons" for not prosecuting many of the referred cases. There should be some repercussion for failure to adhere to accounting standards and rules to minimize opportunities to misuse public resources.
Enforce segregation of duties to minimize opportunities for one person to abuse public resources. In Benton County, more than $1 million was embezzled over 10 years. A senior accounting specialist, Connie Guild, "had physical access to the $10,000 travel fund ... and also had authority to establish a vendor in the computer system, issue purchase orders, prepare and process claims for payment and monitor the operating budget." Arkansas Legislative Audit cited the lack of segregation of duties as a contributing factor to the abuse.
State and local governments should ensure that these and other opportunities for abuse are minimized by ensuring that segregation of duties is adhered to.
The last two areas for improvement in Arkansas are promoting transparency and access to information, and empowering citizens. A 2018 transparency report I co-authored with Terra Aquia and Joyce Ajayi assessing the state of transparency in Arkansas titled " Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency" shows there is much room for improvement.
Accessing fiscal, administrative, and political information on Arkansas counties is often difficult. For example, only eight counties out of 75 had their 2017 budget published online when we looked for them last year. The Legislature should be applauded for enacting Act 564, which requires counties to publish their budgets and financial statements online beginning January 2020.
Easy access to financial information allows residents to be better informed, but also to be watchdogs as well. Elected officials will be more prudent when taxpayers are on the lookout.
We need transparent processes in addition to knowing outcomes. Transparency helps with detection as well as deterrence of corruption. It's important to catch and punish those who abuse public resources and trust, but it's far better if it doesn't even occur in the first place.
Fighting corruption requires a concerted effort. Those who abuse their positions should be found and punished. Processes should be improved to minimize the opportunities for abuse. Ensuring public information is easily accessible by the public informs and empowers them.
The Martha Shoffners, Jeremy Hutchinsons, and Connie Guilds out there need to be stopped. Arkansans have much better things to spend their money on.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.
Editorial on 08/05/2019