2 on elections panel face ethics complaint

Keidra Burrell (center), a Democratic candidate for the District 27 Senate seat, listens as her friend Shandra Griffin talks after a meeting of the Jefferson County Election Commission earlier this year, with Commissioner Ted Davis in the background. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo/Dale Ellis)

Two Jefferson County election commissioners are the subjects of recent ethics violation complaints lodged with the state Board of Election Commissioners by Michael John Gray, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

According to a news release from the Democratic Party of Arkansas, the complaint seeks nullification of a decision to close three polling sites in Jefferson County, issuance of letters of public reprimand against Commission Chairman Michael Adam and Stuart "Stu" Soffer, and fines of $1,000 for each commissioner.

The complaint further alleges that "Soffer's acts of intimidation and harassment against members of the African-American electorate call into question his ability to oversee free and equal elections."

"Without accountability, these commissioners have a green light to continue suppressing votes in Jefferson County," the release said. "If they can't conduct a meeting fairly, there is not sufficient confidence they can conduct an election fairly."

Some of the accusations stem from a Jan. 23 meeting of Adam and Soffer during which the two men voted to consolidate three polling sites if those sites failed to log at least 100 voters during the March 3 preferential primary election. Other allegations stem from comments that Soffer has been accused of making on social media about Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth.

Commissioner Theodis "Ted" Davis attempted to address those remarks at a recent commission meeting, at which point Adam attempted to silence him.

"Over the past four days, I have 22 emails from Pulaski County, Washington County, Crittenden, St. Francis, Desha, and the city of Texarkana," Davis said on Sept. 10 during an election commission meeting. "I have emails and texts about comments made about the Pulaski County Clerk referring to her as a b*h."

"I don't think we need to bring up disparaging remarks here," Adam said, just before trying to gavel Davis into silence.

"My comment is that I find it to be despicable," Davis said.

"I find what you said to be despicable, and to bring it up in this meeting is even worse," Adam said. "We are adjourned."

After a heated argument between Davis and Soffer, Davis exited the commission office.

"You, sir, are so full of horse s*, it's unbelievable," Soffer called out as Davis left.

"Well, I think we all just went right down the toilet there," Adam said.

On Wednesday, Adam said his attempt to silence Davis was because Davis was bringing up partisan issues during the meeting.

Both Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb have disavowed Soffer's comments.

"The comments are unacceptable," Hutchinson said in an email from his office Wednesday. "Respect for one another and elevating our civil discourse are essential elements of navigating the challenging issues our state and nation currently confront. I have spoken with Chair Doyle Webb and he has expressed my concern to Mr. Soffer."

Webb said that as election time approaches, tempers tend to flair and anxiety reaches a fever pitch.

"It's always my hope that we can work together," Webb said. "We need to make sure every vote is counted and that every vote is a legal vote. There is a certain amount of civility that's required, and I would call on Mr. Soffer to exercise that civility and to work with those who are on the other side of the aisle so that we have a good and fair election."

Davis was not present at the Jan. 23 meeting and was not notified that it was taking place, having tendered his resignation a few days previously.

Adam and Soffer, both Republicans, have contended that because Davis, a Democrat, had resigned his position, he was not a member of the commission, which made a vote by the two Republican members a unanimous decision. According to state law, a unanimous vote of the commission is required to make polling site changes, and Davis had resisted any efforts to close or consolidate polling sites on the basis that doing so would, in his opinion, have the effect of suppressing the vote.

The complaint erroneously alleges that Adam and Soffer held a meeting on Jan. 23 without notifying the public, as an email notification was sent out at 1:21 p.m. on Jan. 22 notifying the Pine Bluff Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Deltaplex News, the Jefferson County clerk's office, and the Jefferson County judge's office of the meeting along with the meeting agenda. An amended notification was sent out to those same recipients at 6:05 p.m. the same day, with both coming from Adam's email account.

However, Davis, as the complaint alleged, was not notified of the meeting, according to the list of addresses notified in the field showing the email recipients.

On Jan. 16, Davis had submitted his resignation from the commission, citing "a culture of corruption, racism, hostility, and blatantly self-serving personal agendas" as his reasons for resigning. Davis continued, calling the environment on the commission "toxic, dangerously threatening, and intimidating," saying the commission had "adopted a policy of unlimited authority, which has clearly led to abuse of power."

Although Davis had submitted his resignation from the commission, the Democratic Party of Arkansas complaint, citing Arkansas Code Annotated §7-4-105(a) -- which states: "The county board of election commissioners shall hold office until their successors are appointed and qualified" -- contended that Davis was still legally an election commissioner and by law should have been notified of the meeting.

"I don't know about that," Adam said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "He resigned, and I sent a notice to the chairman of the Democratic Committee, to Pat Johnson. So if he didn't get a notice, it's not my fault. I sent it to her because I didn't know who they were going to be, and he said it was bad conditions and he wasn't coming to any meetings, so what can I say?"

Contacted by phone Wednesday, Davis said that had he been informed of the meeting, he would likely have been there.

"If I had been notified, I probably would have attended," Davis said, "based on the fact that the Democratic Party determines my appointment. So, yes, if I had been notified, I would have attended, at least until my resignation was accepted by the Democratic Party."

Patricia Royal Johnson, chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee in Jefferson County, said she never received any notice about the January meeting.

"If he had sent me one about closing the polling places, I would have been there," Johnson said. "By the time I found out, I got on the phone and called the aldermen because I know that was not a good idea. If he had sent me something saying they were going to close the precincts, and I don't recall him sending me anything, but if he had sent me something, I would have been there. I would have had a lot of people there."

Adam said he had notified Johnson of the meeting in a separate email but was unable to produce the specific notification he said was sent.

"I could not find it, but I'm sure I sent it because I remember sending it," he said.

The Democratic Central Committee of Jefferson County never accepted Davis' resignation, and the following month he began attending commission meetings as a voting member of the commission once again. Since returning, Davis has objected to the poll closures that were done in January, but he has been unable to get any of those reversed until recently, in a maneuver that Adam likened to blackmail.

"I don't remember, it was two others we had consolidated previously," Adam said. "We wanted to move Swan Lake because it was not in an [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant building, and he refused to let us move it unless we opened those other two back up."

According to a story in the Pine Bluff Commercial on Aug. 20, those polling sites were Morning Star Baptist Church and the Pine Bluff School District Administration Building, which Davis held out to be reinstated before he would vote to allow the polling site at Swan Lake Community Center to be moved to the Swan Lake Fire Department.

That vote took place Aug. 18.

"That was a mistake on my part, to let that vote go ahead," Adam said. "I think we should have left it alone, and then all three of us could have gotten a complaint about an ADA noncompliant facility. But both Mr. Soffer and myself were trying to take care of the voters, and that's exactly what we tried to do."

Soffer said the complaint, as well as a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, amounted to much ado about nothing.

"After a quick read, I think it would be more accurate if they began, 'Once upon a time,'" Soffer said. "We did it by the numbers. There were two FOIAs, we did it in a public meeting, it was recorded in the minutes, and there was absolutely nothing underhanded about it."

Daniel Shults, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said the complaint will be investigated, and if it is found that there is any substance to it, the result could be a settlement offering anything from a letter of caution to a warning to a letter of reprimand and fine of $500 for a first offense to as much as $1,000.

"If the investigation shows probable cause, we would offer a settlement, and if the offer is rejected, there could be a hearing," Shults said. "If it comes to that, they take the offer and we dismiss, or there's a hearing."

Soffer also said several invoices sent to County Judge Gerald Robinson have not been paid, which he said could be a problem for the county come election time.

"They're going to have a problem come election time if he doesn't knock it off," Soffer said.

Robinson said a number of invoices submitted to the county showed a duplication of work and that he has ordered all further invoices submitted by the election commission to be subject to review before payment.

Adam said the controversy over the New Town polling location has been a lot of controversy over a nonissue.

"That's a lot of noise about 49 voters at one poll site; that's basically what it amounts to," Adam said.

Former Election Coordinator Joyce Campbell, Election Commissioner Ted Davis, and current Election Coordinator George Stepps talk outside the Jefferson County Election Commission officer following a recent special meeting. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo/Dale Ellis)
Former Election Coordinator Joyce Campbell, Election Commissioner Ted Davis, and current Election Coordinator George Stepps talk outside the Jefferson County Election Commission officer following a recent special meeting. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo/Dale Ellis)