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story.lead_photo.caption The logo of the "Rutledge Report," the series of television ads featuring Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, is shown in this undated screenshot. Rutledge spokeswoman Amanda Priest has said the campaign on television and radio started in 2015 as a way to reach Arkansans to explain all the office has to offer and to protect consumers. (Courtesy photo / The Communications Group via YouTube )

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's chief of staff Friday defended to state lawmakers Rutledge's spending of $1.7 million in state funds on television and radio advertising this fiscal year.

The Republican attorney general's office spent $1.1 million with The Communications Group in the quarter that ended March 31 for TV ads for the rest of fiscal 2020, which ends June 30. The ads have covered subjects such as robocalls, cybercrimes, vaping, opioids, Medicaid fraud, child abuse and price gouging, according to her office.

In contrast, the attorney general's office spent about $917,000 total on advertising in the previous four fiscal years, according to her office's records.

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said during a meeting of the Legislative Council that "it seems like we are at a high-water mark as far as the amount of money that the AG [attorney general] is spending on promoting various aspects of the AG's office.

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"What measurement tool do you use to determine the money being spent is actually of value?" Hammer asked Rutledge's chief of staff, Cory Cox.

Cox said the attorney general's office tracks the number of calls that the office receives.

"Following the outbreak of covid, we saw an increase in March of 106% in our phone calls," he said. "We started getting about 8,000 to 9,000 calls a month."

Cox said the attorney general's office received 4,392 calls in March 2019 and 9,039 calls in March of this year.

The office received 4,772 calls in April 2019 and 9,726 calls in April this year, he said.

"If you would step back to January and February, you'll remember that the world was a little bit different. We weren't siting here wearing masks and having our temperature taken," he said. "All of our normal processes for going out and reaching out to the public [and] bring folks to us to get complaints disappeared.

"On top of that, we had an extraordinary and unprecedented public health crisis," Cox said. "It is hard to predict what's going to happen. But one thing we were sure of, every time there is an emergency, the bad guys step up and they try to take advantage of the consumers."

State law places the responsibility for stopping price gouging on the attorney general's office, he said.

"We have this very big role, we have a huge role and we have an instance [where] the normal processes have been completely disrupted, so there was an increase in getting the word out and we think that it paid off," he said. "We have got open cases going on price gouging. ... We did everything we could to get in front of what we saw coming, which was a tsunami of bad actors that were going to take advantage of hurting Arkansans."

Hammer said he wants the attorney general's office to provide a list of the number of calls related to the areas of advertisement so lawmakers can determine whether the number of calls on a subject justify the expense for a related advertisement.

The advertising expenses are paid out of the attorney general's consumer education and enforcement fund, which is funded by money obtained from lawsuits brought by the office.

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 for the veterans home in North Little Rock, to veterans services offices across the state.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he can remember "a lot more publicity for some of the other officeholders we've had in these places."

"What authority do we have to even tell the attorney general what they do with their funds that's in their hands?"

Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity said that under state law, the attorney general submits a quarterly report to the Legislature of all money received from court orders or settlement agreements and its spending.

The Legislative Council doesn't take action on the report.

Rapert said, "I would love to see what [was] some of the budget spending from the prior attorney general and maybe look back.

"Let's just kind of take a look at this, because frankly it is almost like you are damned if you do, damned if you don't," he said.

"I get constant calls about people that are getting calls from robocalls," Rapert said. "My own grandmother was nearly tricked into wiring money to someone who called and said that one of my cousins was in jail in Florida, and she was about to wire the money to help this grandson and, fortunately, his mother walked in the door and they were able to figure that out. These are the kind of things that people need to know that you can help with."

Attorney general's office records show that the previous highest amount that the office spent on TV and radio ads since at least 2008 was $459,200 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.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said the office's ad spending has been an issue in the past and will continue to be until "this body acts.

"It is not really about you all promoting the issues or promoting the office of the attorney general," he said.

The issue has always been that it's about promoting the individual within that office, Hickey said.

"I think the way to fix this will be in the future that we make it generic in nature, so ... if a judge tells you that you have to do this for consumer education, that's fine," Hickey said. "The only thing is, is we can use an independent voice and we can say the Arkansas attorney general's office and use a 1-800 number and we'll get the same message out to the people.

"I think until this body probably does legislation, that won't ever stop. If this body can get that legislation in, then what I see, it will be hard in the future, be it 20, 30 years from now, for anyone to take it out," he said.

Cox said, "Without talking to my boss, I am not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole, sir."

Afterward, Rutledge spokeswoman Amanda Priest said in a written statement that "while the attorney general prefers to see specific language before weighing the merits, she is always happy to work with any legislator on proposed bills, regardless of whether she would support the legislation.

"In this instance, consideration would be given to whether such a ban on the use of a duly elected officeholder's name must apply to all elected officials and on any form of communication to the public such as social media, stationery, etc., and would such a ban be upheld if its constitutionality is challenged," Priest said.

Rutledge is weighing a bid for governor. A nonprofit advisory group called Arkansas Competes has aired privately financed ads since October featuring Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who said in August that he is a 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Last month, Priest said the increased ad spending is "not at all" a response to Arkansas Competes' ads featuring Griffin.

Other potential 2022 gubernatorial candidates include Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and President Donald Trump's former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Hendren's uncle is Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has been governor since 2015 and is barred from seeking re-election under the state's term limits amendment.

Metro on 05/16/2020

Print Headline: Arkansas attorney general aide defends ad spending

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