Several state lawmakers vented their frustration about two agency heads not appearing before legislative committees Thursday to respond to questions about two hot-button topics.
Afterward, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it was at his direction that Alcoholic Beverage Control Division Director Doralee Chandler and Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston chose not to attend the joint meeting of the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees, adding that his administration will respond to questions during Wednesday's meeting of the Legislative Council.
Chandler had been asked to discuss last week's temporary suspension of the alcohol beverage permit held by Fort Smith music venue TempleLive, which had planned to hold a concert May 15, three days before the state Department of Health allowed large indoor venues to reopen since closing them in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The concert was instead held Monday.
Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther said in a letter dated Thursday to the committees' co-chairmen that Chandler agreed to appear and answer questions about the laws that authorized her actions until she learned that representatives of TempleLive -- Mike Brown, vice president of operations, and attorney John Scott -- also would appear.
"The appropriate venue for Temple Live to air their grievances is in a hearing before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board," Walther said. "The Board has the power to review any suspension of a permit by the Director, by its own motion. Should Temple Live request such a hearing and find itself dissatisfied with the ruling of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, Temple Live may appeal that ruling to the Circuit Court of either Pulaski County or Sebastian County."
Preston opted not to appear to discuss the Arkansas Pandemic Unemployment Assistance website, which is under FBI investigation because applicants' information was accessible to outsiders.
"Matters concerning the PUA system are currently the subject of a federal investigation, and as such, I am unable to provide any information or answer any questions concerning the current status of the system or any website issues," he wrote in an email to a legislative staff member. "For that reason, I am unable to attend the meeting as requested."
Preston said updates about payments to qualified applicants will be provided in writing to the applicants and the Legislature as that information becomes available. An official from the department will provide updates to the Legislative Council, his email said.
"I think this is a horrible, horrible precedent that these agencies are setting by not coming before this body," Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said.
"I always try not to be arrogant or try to say this, but ... I am going to say the way it is," he said. "We do control that money and, if these other agencies think that this body will allow this, I will only speak for myself. But I am going to tell you right now there will be bad times ahead."
Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said he has been in the House for almost eight years and this is the first time that he recalls when an agency refused to appear before a legislative committee.
"My frustration is really directed toward them. If you are watching from the live-stream, please take note," he said.
The two committees approved a motion by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, to subpoena Chandler and Preston to compel them to appear at the committees' next meeting, subject to the approval of House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, and if the agency heads don't attend Wednesday's meeting.
Asked if Chandler plans to appear Wednesday, finance department spokesman Scott Hardin said late Thursday afternoon in a written statement that "Director Chandler has not received a request to appear before the ALC." But in an written statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hutchinson said someone from the Alcoholic Beverage Control agency would be there.
Asked the same question about Preston, Commerce Department spokeswoman Alisha Curtis said in a written statement, "Yes, we had always planned for him to be there next Wednesday."
Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said Thursday night that they agreed with Hutchinson before Thursday's meeting to have lawmakers' questions about the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program answered Wednesday.
They pointed out there are many more lawmakers on the council than on the State Agencies committees.
"I discussed the issue with both the Sen. Pro Tem and Speaker of House and advised that my administration would testify before the full ALC next week and answer questions relating to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance website and payment of funds," Hutchinson said Thursday in a written statement.
"We certainly welcome legislative oversight," he said. "This week my leadership team had to be fully focused on supporting the effort of getting the website secure and the payments to the applicants."
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, vice chairman of the Senate committee, said he's worried about the potential breach of information of at least 30,000 Arkansans who had applied for the assistance.
"I don't know how many people went in there and looked at it, whether it was the one potential whistleblower or more," he said. "We asked Secretary Preston to come and explain these things because this is a very important issue for the people who are already hurting. He denied that request and cited an FBI investigation.
"I checked with staff. We often have people in front of our committees who are under investigation. We have people who have criminal charges in front of them who still come and testify. So I disagree with his assessment.
"We did everything we could to accommodate the executive branch," he said. "I think it is incomprehensible that he wouldn't come, and it shows his blatant disregard for the authority and respect of this body."
Regarding Chandler, Hutchinson wrote, "we also welcome legislative oversight but we expect that agency directors will not be asked to attend a hearing under one premise and surprised by additions to the agenda that have the potential to place an agency director in adversarial circumstances with an entity regulated by that agency."
After Health Secretary Nate Smith issued a cease-and-desist order against TempleLive, Alcoholic Beverage Control agents stripped the license from the wall, Brown said last week.
Chandler's order said the permit was suspended because the business "is not operating in the public interest, and poses a danger to the public health, safety and welfare." The permit was to be returned if the venue publicly announced that Friday's concert was canceled.
Walther said the finance department and the Alcoholic Beverage Control agency "stand ready to accommodate the requests of the General Assembly to further explain Director Chandler's actions," outlined in a five-page letter from Hutchinson to lawmakers defending her actions.
"However, the agency will not waive the administrative processes afforded under the law to the board or to those they regulate nor will it participate in a hearing on an administrative action outside the proper forum," Walther wrote to the committees' co-chairmen.
Garner said, "we received that letter [from Walther] at roughly 11 o'clock that they would not be here. Instead of trying to negotiate ... I thought it would be better to just hold the meeting."
Garner said he disagreed with Walther's suggestion that the appearance of Brown and Scott "somehow ... would violate any kind of legal hearing they may have going forward.
"We are a legislative body, not a judicial body, and we have no adjudication power to do anything," he said. "What we wanted was the ability to discuss with them how the process went and see how they would act in the future and potentially find more information, for if we were going to change the law moving forward."
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said "I get so tired of people telling the Legislature what we are doing and what we are not doing.
"What we are interested in is a state agency and whether they overstepped their bounds or not and by having somebody here so we can hear all the facts, not somebody telling one side of the story. We want to be able to hear the other side of the story just in case it didn't all jive."
Brown said the issue wasn't a matter of public safety.
Scott said, "from our perspective, it was not any disrespect for the law" about Brown's initial plan to hold the concert May 15.
"It was my client's litigate right as a citizen of the United States of America to ask their lawyer, 'can government do this to us?,'" he said. "They did not say, 'we are going to have it over anybody's objections.'"
Scott said that on May 14, "we were still trying to decide what are we going to announce to the public because there are people that have travel plans, that have invested money and wanting to come and frankly just excited as can be."
A Section on 05/22/2020