Panel cautions firms over lobbying Arkansas sheriffs

Ethics complaints settled despite disputes

File photo
File photo

The Arkansas Ethics Commission on Friday issued public letters of caution to four jail services companies for failing to properly report contributions to the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association.

The four companies settled with the Ethics Commission, agreeing that they violated Arkansas laws by failing to register as lobbyists and failing to report lobbying expenses. However, several on Friday said they disagree with the commission's conclusions.

They also questioned whether the commission's findings would have a negative impact on corporate sponsorships of all type of government-related trade associations.

The companies -- Tech Friends Inc. of Jonesboro; City Tele Coin Co. of Bossier City, La.; Justice Solutions of Austin, Texas; and Correct Solutions LLC of Ruston, La. -- sponsored meals and a fishing tournament for the association that were attended by "sheriffs and other public servants," according to the Ethics Commission.

"The foregoing action was taken as a result of your signing a written Offer of Settlement, pursuant to which you agreed to a finding by the Commission that you violated Ark. Code Ann. §§ 21-8-601 and 602 by failing to comply with lobbyist registration requirements and Ark. Code Ann. §§ 21-8-601 and 21-8-604 by failing to comply with lobbyist reporting requirements," Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan wrote in separate letters to officials from each company.

The Ethics Commission began looking into the matter after receiving a complaint from Charles Niell, according to the commission's letters. Niell, chief executive officer of Jonesboro-based Tiger Correctional Services, received a letter of caution for similar violations last year.

Tech Friends Inc., according to the letter, co-sponsored a breakfast during the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association winter conference in Little Rock, which took place Jan. 27-30.

The company, which provides jails with inmate banking and communications services, also co-sponsored the association's Ronnie Baldwin Memorial Trout Tournament in 2017 and 2018.

The commission determined that the company's activities should have been reported under the state's lobbying laws.

"Tech Friends supported the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association by sponsoring two events which generated an ethics complaint, one of which was a prayer breakfast," Tech Friends president and founder Bob Shipman said in an email. "While we strongly believe that sponsoring an event like a prayer breakfast at a conference should not be an ethics violation, the person filing the complaint apparently disagrees. Tech Friends, Inc. will continue to provide law enforcement the absolute best technology solutions moving forward but will unfortunately be unable to support certain conference events like prayer breakfasts due to the complaint."

City Tele Coin Co. bought Gus's Fried Chicken for more than 30 sheriffs during the January association conference, according to Sloan's letter to the company. It also co-sponsored a conference lunch.

Additionally, the company, which provides technology and products to law enforcement agencies and jails, co-sponsored the association's 2018 trout fishing tournament. The commission also found that City Tele Coin Co. paid for meals for public servants at Riverfront Steakhouse in North Little Rock in January.

Those activities should have been reported as lobbying, according to the commission.

Marty Bowen, an attorney for the company, said that City Tele Coin Co. officials were unaware that those activities were considered lobbying under Arkansas law. Since being contacted by the Ethics Commission, Bowen said the company registered and began reporting its activity, including "back-reporting" activity prior to the date the commission addressed.

"As soon as it came to our attention, we registered and have been reporting ever since," Bowen said.

Justice Solutions, a jail software company, co-sponsored a January lunch and breakfast during the Sheriffs' Association winter conference, and it co-sponsored the 2018 fishing tournament, according to the commission. The commission also found that the company co-sponsored a January event for sheriffs' wives.

Those activities should have been reported as lobbying, according to Sloan's letter.

"Justice Solutions was unfortunately put in the middle of an ongoing dispute between another vendor, who opted to weaponize the commission in order to attempt to gain competitive advantage, and a local lawmaker," Daniel Boswell, Justice Solutions president, said in a statement. "Ethics complaints against multiple vendors were filed by this vendor as a result of this separate business dispute. Justice Solutions still maintains that its actions did not violate the relevant statutory guidance, but has agreed to resolve the matter with the Ethics Commission in an effort to move forward from this unfortunate -- and unrelated -- dispute. We are pleased with the efforts of the Ethics Commission to resolve this matter fairly, and look forward to continued relationships with county and municipal clients in Arkansas."

Correct Solutions LLC, which offers money and phone services for inmates, co-sponsored a conference breakfast and lunch as well as the 2018 trout fishing tournament.

Correct Solutions also contributed or pledged to contribute $4,500 as a co-sponsor of a May 2019 Arkansas Narcotics Officers Association event in Hot Springs, according to the commission.

The activities should have been reported, Sloan wrote in a letter to the company.

"We respectfully disagree with the majority of the commission and believe it's an incorrect application of the law to the facts," said Kevin Crass, an attorney for Correct Solutions. "But the company will comply with the ruling and go forward with doing business, and we believe all vendors should play by the same rules."

Crass noted in a phone interview that he thought the Ethics Commission's ruling would have a widespread impact on companies sponsoring all kinds of government trade associations beyond the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association.

Metro on 08/17/2019

CORRECTION: The Arkansas Ethics Commission found on Friday that Correct Solutions LLC properly reported a free meal it provided for more than 30 Arkansas sheriffs at Sonny Williams’ Steak Room earlier this year through its lobbyist. An earlier version of this article misstated the findings related to the steakhouse meal.