A sitting state legislator has been hired as director of Arkansas' largest youth lockup, a move a local watchdog group's leader called "blatantly wrong."
Rep. Jasen Kelly, R-Benton, was hired last month by Rite of Passage, the Nevada-based firm that manages all four of Arkansas' residential facilities for juvenile offenders for the state Division of Youth Services. Rite of Passage has a more than $70 million contract.
Kelly's annual salary is $110,000 as head of the Arkansas Juvenile Treatment and Assessment Center in Alexander.
Kelly said in an interview Monday that the job doesn't conflict with his duties as a legislator or pose an ethical issue. He plans to recuse himself from votes or discussions that deal with Rite of Passage. He also consulted with the Arkansas Ethics Commission earlier this month, he said.
Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, called for Kelly's resignation from the House in an interview Monday, saying it was the only way to resolve a potential conflict of interest.
Kelly's $110,00 salary is $5,000 less than that of the previous director. Eight "viable candidates" applied for the position, said Amy Webb, an Arkansas Department of Human Services spokeswoman.
Kelly is the former chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Saline County. He became the club's CEO in 2006 and resigned in October 2019. He announced the same month that he would not run for a second House term, saying he planned to spend more time with his family. His term ends in January.
The Alexander facility, which held just over 100 youths as of May, is a residential facility and assessment center for youth offenders.
Legislators on House committees often hear reports on the Division of Youth Services' activities. Kelly also serves on the Arkansas Legislative Council, which oversees the executive branch of the government, which includes youth services. The House committee does not typically deal with contracts such as Rite of Passage's, Webb said.
"On the surface this appears to be a conflict of interest based on his current role in the House serving on the Aging, Children and Youth Committees as well as the ALC committees," Masseau wrote in a July 7 email to youth services officials. "This conflict raises many red flags regarding the ongoing delivery of service with the Division of Youth Services."
Disability Rights is a group federally mandated to monitor the treatment of people with disabilities.
Keesa Smith, the Division of Youth Services deputy director, replied that state officials had asked Rite of Passage for further information and that the state learned about Kelly's hire July 6.
He was hired June 17, Webb said in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
On Wednesday -- one day after the Disability Rights email -- Kelly spoke with Graham Sloan, Arkansas Ethics Commission director, according to emails obtained under an open records request.
"You stated that the facilities are owned by the State of Arkansas, but Rite of Passage has been hired to run them. Your employment would not be with the State but rather the private company," Sloan's follow-up email to Kelly reads.
Sloan's email went on to say that the commission did not have any prohibitions against Kelly working for Rite of Passage, and cautioned Kelly against "participating in any matters coming before the General Assembly which would involve Rite of Passage."
The Arkansas Department of Human Service's contract with Rite of Passage does not require the group to submit the names of applicants, Smith replied in her email.
She added that "we are reviewing the need to change this requirement for this or future contracts."
No official changes have been made to that policy, although the department did ask that Rite of Passage notify them of any staffing changes at that level, Webb said.
Mike Cantrell, Rite of Passage executive director, said in an interview that Kelly would "just need to recuse himself" from legislative issues dealing with the group. He said Kelly was familiar with the campus from his time with the Saline County Boys and Girls Club. The organization ran programs on the Alexander campus.
"Jasen has the executive experience we were looking for, obviously he has the heart for kids," Cantrell said. "Jasen was the best candidate for the position."
Prior to working as the CEO, Kelly was program director for the Boys and Girls Club from 1998 to 2006, he said.
"I have a passion for these students," he said. "I know these are Arkansas citizens and they're coming home soon."
He added that Cantrell contacted him to ask if he would be interested in applying for the job. In an email to Smith, Cantrell said he spoke to Kelly "in passing" in mid April about the position.
Cantrell said in an interview that he left it up to Kelly to consult with the Arkansas Ethics Commission on whether there was a conflict of interest.
Webb said that Cantrell, Smith and Division of Youth Services Director Michael Crump had a call to ensure that Rite of Passage "was setting parameters so that Mr. Kelly's ROP role did not conflict with his role as a Legislator and vice versa."
"The two roles should not intertwine in any way and I have personally spoken to Jasen regarding OUR expectations around that," Cantrell wrote in his July 7 email to Smith.
But, Masseau said in an interview that the only way to avoid conflicts of interest would be for Kelly to resign from the legislature.
"There's not a conflict of interest," Kelly said Monday. "I would take the advice and leadership from our ethics commission director and as he stated, there's not a conflict as long as I don't participate in any votes or discussion."
"There's got to be better checks and balances here in the state. ... We can do better and we should do better," Masseau said of Kelly's hire.
"To have this perception of a conflict doesn't do us any good as a state or as a system, so I hope they respond accordingly. And that legislator should know better."