Cellphone text messages from a Lake City planning board member to the city's mayor, Jon Milligan, appear to promise a $20,000 scholarship for Milligan's daughter if the mayor drops out of the Arkansas House District 53 Republican primary and endorses an opposing candidate, Dr. Cole Peck.
Milligan said Thursday that he believes the texts sent to his city-supplied cellphone on Sept. 8 were "a joke."
That's because the sender, planning and zoning board member Ty Koons, later told him they were.
But someone -- Milligan said he doesn't know who -- apparently sent the messages to the state attorney general's office. Milligan believes that office is investigating because he's been questioned in recent weeks.
Koons, who acknowledges sending the texts, said he, too, has been questioned by an investigator from the attorney general's office about the exchange that Koons describes as "a bad joke."
The attorney general's office won't comment.
Peck's campaign spokesman said Thursday that the urgent-care doctor didn't instigate the texts or any scholarship offer and knew nothing about the communication between Koons and Milligan until weeks after it happened.
Milligan provided screen-shots of the text messages in response to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's request under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The exchange begins with two early "lol" notations -- shorthand that often means "laughing out loud" -- but later contains no obvious joke or laugh references.
The texts supplied by the mayor showed this was the conversation, spelled and punctuated as written:
"Next thing ill hear you say is you're dropping out & endorsing Cole lol. It'd be beneficial to both of you," said the first text message by Koons.
"U won't hear me say that," Milligan responded.
Koons: "Lol, you sure?"
Milligan: "Yea why would I do that"
Koons: "Beneficial to you."
Milligan: "How's that"
Koons: "You know they have 20 thousand dollars schlorships that would be real easy for Natalie to receive. Would that be beneficial?"
Milligan: "Oh yea it's amazing she or we never heard it before"
(Milligan's daughter is a medical school student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, according to the mayor.)
Koons: "I assure you I can make it happen, you can exit [the House primary] with your dignity & integrity intact remain mayor until Cole moves to State Senate & then get you in there. Meanwhile Natalie wins, WE ALL WIN."
Koons then continued: "Your thoughts? I can schedule a mtg between you & Cole. The offer won't last forever. I know you want to be State Rep real bad but it's all about timing (in no way insinuating you can't win),"
The text stream concludes with Milligan refusing to bow out of the District 53 primary: "Think I'll pass on the bailing out and the scholarship. Win or lose GOD will see me thru it just like he always has and because of him Natalie will always be a winner."
Koons: "Yes sir I understand."
That concluded the conversation as given in screen-shots to the Democrat-Gazette.
Milligan, a three-term mayor for the city of about 2,500 people in Craighead County east of Jonesboro, said that when he first received the texts, he thought: "What is he talking about here?"
"I sent them to my campaign people. I didn't want somebody coming up later and say, 'Why didn't you turn it over?'" Milligan said.
Milligan also said about Koons: "We joke and kid."
The mayor said that when he saw Koons later at a fair, the latter said, "I was just kidding. I was just going on."
"I believe him," Milligan said.
Asked if he has any plans to drop out of the District 53 primary race, Milligan said: "No. I'm good. I'm rocking on. I'm fine."
Koons, asked if he and the mayor are still friends, said: "No ma'am. Absolutely not."
Koons supported Peck's 2018 campaign for the same seat, according to several posts and pictures on his personal Facebook page. He said he's a supporter now.
Peck's statement in response to Democrat-Gazette questions said he has "known Ty Koons for several years. It is my understanding that Mr. Koons and Mayor Milligan had a friendship that went back many years as well.
"My campaign never authorized anyone to make contact with a fellow candidate regarding these, or any other allegations. There will be no further comment on the subject," Peck's statement said.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office declined Thursday to answer questions about the texts and whether the office was investigating, saying, "the Attorney General does not disclose potential targets of investigations."
The District 53 seat is held by Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro. Sullivan is not running for reelection and instead is challenging Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, for the Republican nomination for Senate District 21.
Peck ran against Sullivan in the House District 53 Republican primary in 2018. Sullivan won with 1,434 votes to Peck's 1,260, according to the secretary of state's office.
The district includes part of Jonesboro and the eastern portion of Craighead County.
In addition to Milligan and Sullivan, Jonesboro City Council Member Bobby Long plans to run for the Republican nomination.
Long said Thursday that he was unaware of the texts and has been focused on his own campaign.
"If that's the case, it's unfortunate," he said. "I'm sure if the [attorney general] is involved they'll get to the bottom of it."
The party filing period will extend from noon Nov. 4 until noon Nov. 12. Next year's primary election will be March 3, and the general election is Nov. 3.
Metro on 10/25/2019