Attorney general's 2020 ad spending dwarfs previous 4 years

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is shown during a press conference at her office in Little Rock in this file photo.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has spent $1.7 million in state funds on television and radio advertising in the fiscal year ending June 30, after spending about $917,000 together in the previous four fiscal years, according to her office's records.

These ads in fiscal 2020 have covered subjects such as robocalls, cybercrimes, vaping, opioids, Medicaid fraud, child abuse and price gouging, said Amanda Priest, a spokeswoman for the Republican attorney general.

The attorney general office's records show the previous highest amount that the office spent on TV and radio ads in a fiscal year since at least fiscal 2008 was the $459,200 spent in fiscal 2014 when Democrat Dustin McDaniel was the attorney general.

That fiscal year started in July 2013; McDaniel withdrew from the 2014 governor's race in January 2013.

Rutledge's office spent $1.1 million on three contracts with The Communications Group on March 31 for TV ads for the rest of the fiscal year, Priest said.

"Additional funding was added in March-April due to the unexpected coronavirus pandemic and to bring awareness to the very important issue of price gouging that inevitably occurs with any disaster or crisis," Priest said in a written statement to this newspaper.

"Due to the PSA [public service announcement] on price gouging, our office has received over 10,000 calls on covid price gouging and scams in the four weeks since the emergency declaration and we have nearly three dozen ongoing investigations," Priest said.

In addition, Rutledge chose to air the public service announcement on child abuse because "it is an ongoing concern and, with children not in school with teachers [who are mandatory reporters], law enforcement officials believe there may be an increase in abuse that is not being reported under these trying circumstances of isolation and unemployment," she said.

The "Rutledge Report" featured in the TV and radio ads started in 2015 as a way to reach Arkansans to explain all the office has to offer and to protect consumers, Priest said. There always has been an intention to include TV, radio, digital and traditional print advertising, she said.

The advertising expenses are paid out of the attorney general's consumer education and enforcement fund, "which is money obtained from lawsuits and not from tax dollars," she said. The fund has been used to fund a variety of projects, from small business quick action loans through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, to personal protective equipment, to the veterans home in North Little Rock, to veterans services offices across the state.

The increased ad spending by Rutledge, who is weighing a potential bid for governor in 2022, has come as a nonprofit issue advisory group called Arkansas Competes has aired four ads since October featuring Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who announced in August that he is a 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Arkansas Competes director Carl Vogelpohl on Monday declined to say how much the nonprofit group has spent on the ads.

"As a non-profit focused on issues, Arkansas Competes doesn't share detailed budget information, but is committed to providing critical information to Arkansans during this pandemic," Vogelpohl said in an email to this newspaper.

Griffin said Monday in a written statement that "we are all working together to get through this challenging time, and I'm doing what I can, at no cost to taxpayers, with Arkansas Competes to tell the public about the help they can get."

Priest said the increased ad spending by Rutledge's office is "not at all" a response to Arkansas Competes' ads featuring Griffin.

"Political announcements have zero influence on the daily decisions made by the attorney general to protect and defend the people of Arkansas," she said.

Rutledge's office has spent $1.51 million on TV advertising through The Communications Group in fiscal 2020 and all but $10,952.10 of that has been spent on or after Oct. 30, according to records provided by Priest.

Rutledge's office didn't spend any money on TV advertising in any previous fiscal year since she began serving as attorney general in January 2015, according to the office's records.

On radio ads, her office spent about $203,000 in fiscal 2016; about $234,000 in fiscal 2017; about $239,000 in fiscal 2018; about $239,000 in fiscal 2019; and about $236,000 in fiscal 2020, the records show.

The Arkansas Times blog on Saturday first reported the ad figures that were also provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in response to a separate public records request.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and President Donald Trump's former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also are considering running for governor in 2022.

Hendren said Monday people have asked him about Rutledge's advertising.

He said he isn't criticizing Rutledge about the ads because he hasn't seen many of them, but said elected state officials have to be careful not to cross the line so that taxpayers pay for their self-promotion.

During a November meeting of the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee, Sens. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis; and Kim Hammer, R-Benton, raised questions about Rutledge's advertising.

Irvin questioned Rutledge's chief of staff, Cory Cox, about what constitutes advertising or consumer report-type alerts versus what might be construed as public relations or campaign ads.

"There is a statute that allows us to spend money on consumer education efforts," Cox responded then. He said that law addresses enforcement as well.

Priest said Monday that was Arkansas Code Annotated 4-88-105.

Irvin, who is considering running for lieutenant governor in 2022, noted that she received an email from Ed Shively of Little Rock about Rutledge's advertising spending.

Shively said Monday in an email to this newspaper that he's a retired manager for Merck, is an independent voter and holds no allegiance to any politician or political party.

"The source of the funds makes no difference to me. They are NOT hers to spend as she likes, particularly for her governor's campaign," Shively wrote in his email. "The funds could be put to the greater good in helping Arkansas citizens who at present are desperate for some form of help. How many times an hour does one need to see the same message? I know the message is not the reason for the repeated ads over and over."

Hammer said, "Attorney Generals have always had a history of spending funds collected through settlements handled by their office.

"As with all entities in state government, a review of spending and justification of that spending is always in order. There appears to be a spike in spending above past trends which warrants a review," he said in a written statement.

Ingram said that he trusts that the attorney general's advertising spending is within the guidelines that have been established for its use.

Metro on 04/14/2020