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Arkansas Ethics Commission pushed to 'breaking point' after receiving record citizen complaints, director says

by Michael R. Wickline | January 21, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

The Arkansas Ethics Commission received a record 146 citizen complaints filed against candidates and others during the 2018 election cycle, a 45 percent increase over the 2012 election cycle, an official said Friday.

The increased workload has pushed the agency to "the breaking point," commission Director Graham Sloan warned.

Sloan has asked for Gov. Asa Hutchinson's support for the commission's request for two more staff positions, restoration of its funding for operations to $108,367, and an appropriation of $25,000 to replace its antiquated website.

"At the request of the five members of the Arkansas Ethics Commission (the 'AEC'), I am sending this letter to ... alert you to a critical situation at the AEC caused by a shortage of resources necessary for the AEC to meet its statutory duties; and ... seek your assistance in obtaining the additional resources needed to solve the problem," Sloan wrote in his letter dated Dec. 28 to Hutchinson. The letter was presented to the commission at its meeting Friday.

"Over time the AEC's jurisdiction has been expanded and its caseload has increased significantly in both complexity and volume. Meanwhile, the size of its staff has remained static for almost 20 years and its funding for operations has actually shrunk."

In response, Hutchinson said the staffing needs requested by the commission "warrant additional review and consideration.

"I look forward to working with you and the leadership of the Arkansas General Assembly to consider your requests during the upcoming legislative session," the governor wrote in a letter dated Jan. 8 to Sloan. The governor's letter was also given to the commission Friday.

Hutchinson said he forwarded the commission's request to fund an upgrade of its website to the state Department of Finance and Administration for further review.

A Joint Budget Committee co-chairman, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said Friday that Sloan sent him a copy of the letter to Hutchinson.

"I want to help him," he said.

Teague said the commission probably needs two more employees.

"I hope we can get him one this year and one next year or something to that effect," he said.

Sloan said Friday in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the commission was granted authority by the Legislature to have three new positions in 2015, "but never got the funding to fill them.

"So we got new positions on paper, but never had the money to fill them and then the positions got taken back because they were unfilled," he said.

The commission's request for more funding and employees will be considered by lawmakers in the regular session that started Monday. Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, urging his fellow senators to begin the session with a determination that "the culture of greed and corruption is over," and warned that his admonition also applies to lobbyists, business interests and others.

Five former state lawmakers have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal crimes as a result of investigations in the past 2½ years.

The commission's budget is $785,745 in fiscal 2019, which started July 1, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the finance department. The commission's expenses totaled $721,822 in fiscal 2018, he said.

In his letter to the governor, Sloan said, "Despite a significant increase in the AEC's areas of jurisdiction and workload, the size of its staff has remained fixed at the 1999 level of nine employees."

The Ethics Commission was established in 1991 under Initiated Act 1 of 1990, and started with three employees. More employees were added in 1995 and 1999 to increase their ranks to nine, he said in his letter.

The commission "has reached a crossroads at which it necessary to expand its staff in order to handle cases in the time and manner required by law," so it is seeking a new attorney specialist position and a compliance specialist position, Sloan said.

Residents filed 101 ethics complaints during the 2012 election cycle, 138 ethics complaints during the 2014 election cycle and 146 during the 2018 election cycle, Sloan said.

The commission's jurisdiction has steadily grown over the past 10 years, but its appropriation for operations has actually decreased from $108,367 to $94,489, so it's seeking restoration to the 1999 level of $108,367, he said.

"Several years ago, the AEC's funding was moved from the Central Services fund to the Miscellaneous State Agencies fund, resulting in mandatory spending blocks, which effectively have reduced the funding available for operations even further," Sloan said. "Over the past three fiscal years, the shortfall has averaged more than 12 [percent]. The loss of funding has severely impacted discretionary programs such as education and training and compliance reviews."

The commission's website was designed and published in 1999, he said.

"Obviously, web design has marched forward several steps in innovation in the past twenty years," he wrote. "While minimally functional, the current site is woefully outdated and is often the source of derision from its users. In order to bring the site into the 21st century and within the scope of the state's Data Center Optimization Initiative, the AEC is requesting $25,000 to replace its current website."

During its meeting, the commission elected Walmart Inc.'s in-house attorney Tony Juneau of Rogers as its chairman and Ashley Driver Younger of Little Rock as its vice chairman. Younger is executive director of the nonprofit group Central Arkansas Rescue Effort for Animals Inc.

The commission also includes Harding University faculty member Lori Klein of Searcy; Alice Eastwood of Bentonville, who is a senior director of international ethics for Walmart Inc.; and retired educator Sybil Jordan Hampton of Little Rock.

A Section on 01/19/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas Ethics Commission pushed to 'breaking point' after receiving record citizen complaints, director says


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