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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Forgoing transparency

by Mike Masterson | April 24, 2021 at 8:26 a.m.

Don't the voting, taxpaying citizens of our state deserve to know who living outside our state is paying to influence who is elected to our state Supreme and Appeals courts?

Of course we should know where this money comes from.

I can't think of a legitimate argument for why such information shouldn't be disclosed to the public ... short of politically protecting those who believe their contributions will ensure them favorable results and treatment.

No doubt there are people (and forces aligned with them in our state's House of Representatives) who would eagerly darken any proposed heightened transparency radiating from our political system. So why are they even elected to represent we the people rather than the big-bucks influencers from afar with their unknown special interests?

A story the other day by reporter Neal Earley clearly spelled out the situation. For me and many other Arkansans, such information being restricted is far from an acceptable scenario.

The Arkansas House rejected House Bill 1899 bill by Democrat Andrew Collins of Little Rock, which sought to shed light on these so-called dark money contributions in the state's higher-level judicial elections.

Collins' bill, Earley wrote, "would have required 'comprehensive disclosure' of contributions and expenditures for groups that spend money in Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races."

In other words, valued readers, the proposed law, which easily passed in committee, would have let us know just who from other states cared enough to invest their financial resources into affecting the results of our judicial elections.

What a valid concept if one genuinely cares about how our democratic republic actually functions under the untold influence of out-of-state money.

Earley's story said the bill failed after Republican Rep. David Ray of Maumelle argued against it, claiming the idea of transparency would "regulate free speech in Arkansas."

That's it? Restricting "free speech" is the reason our elected representatives opted out of spreading such vital public information? I'm not nearly convinced by those five words. How about you?

I agree with Collins, who said special-interest groups have used a loophole in Arkansas' election laws, allowing them to invest millions of dollars in our judicial races without disclosing who is forking over all that money--as long as the group in question doesn't specifically endorse a candidate's election or defeat.

Critics of the loophole, Earley reported, said that outside groups who spend their finances on influencing Arkansas judicial races also undermine the public's belief that justices are nonpartisan.

In defending his efforts, Collins said, "We have a chance to rebuild that trust and to preserve the trust of the judiciary with this bill."

Oops, better change that to "had the chance."

Should his bill have become a law, outside groups would have had to disclose information about their donors if they push campaign materials within four months of an election for both the state's supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

Ray argued that Collins' bill wasn't about transparency since transparency is for government and privacy is for citizens. Say wha?

I contend that any time big money is being quietly funneled into races for our highest judicial offices, it is very much a matter of public service transparency. This strikes me as good ol' Ozarks common sense.

Besides, I subscribe to the theory that it makes little sense to say transparency is irrelevant when it comes to private citizens from elsewhere using their resources to influence Arkansas' tax-supported government.

Imagine if I were financially able to invest a million dollars in North Carolina high court elections without having to 'fess up how much or why I cared. That would reek of attempted manipulation of vital forms of government in which I have no apparent interest.

It becomes especially pertinent when we realize all the other contributors to Arkansas' political races are disclosed while those for Appeals Court and Supreme Court justices inexplicably are not.

It's also relevant to note that the Arkansas Bar Association supported Collins' bill. Paul W. Keith, president of that organization, told Earley that judicial-race spending has undermined the public's support in the independence of our elected jurists.

"We felt like it's important for the voters to know who is trying to influence those elections," Keith said. "So, it's a transparency bill."

Without a doubt, Mr. Keith, Esq.

Pilot's GodNod

Jerry W. Cook is a retired pilot and an author from Little Rock who experienced a GodNod while flying combat missions in Vietnam that mystifies him still.

In 1996, McGraw-Hill published Jerry's book, "Once a Fighter Pilot," an account of 205 combat missions Jerry flow in F-4 Phantom Jet fighters. His GodNod experience is in a section titled, "Guardian Angel?"

"My flight of four Phantoms had been assigned to strike a target on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos," he wrote. "The weather over the primary target prohibited the strike, causing us to proceed to a secondary target. That target was nearly hidden by weather. By the time we located it and flew the strike, our low fuel state required us to land at Pleiku Air Base in the central highlands of South Vietnam.

"Normally, the jets were started by an external starter cart. Pleiku didn't have an operable one. However the F-4s had a backup system, which utilized a large explosive cartridge to spin each engine in order to start it.

"We carried one cartridge in a locker on each side of the fuselage. While my jet was fueled, I was retrieving the cartridges. I had one under my left engine's starter breech, then proceeded to the right side cartridge area. But it was empty.

"I checked with the flight line personnel, who also didn't have F-4 cartridges. My flight leader who was preparing to start his engines told me to notify our command post of my situation."

"The command post said they couldn't make a cartridge available until the next day. Meanwhile, the other three Phantoms took off toward home base.

"A short time later my backseat pilot and I got a call from the command post. They told me our commander had been briefed that Pleiku might be attacked that same night."

That meant it was critical for Jerry to quickly get his F-4 out of Pleiku. "When I asked if the commander knew that I only could start one engine, the controller said, 'he knows.' When I broke the news to my back-seater he said, 'You've got to be kidding!'"

About that time a trip flare rose high into the sky and he heard small-arms fire. It was time to go.

"The sun was setting as we installed the only cartridge in the left engine. As far as I knew, a single-engine takeoff had never been attempted in an F-4. I told my back-seater for the second time that I might not be able to get the jet airborne and he didn't have to risk it by going. He said he was going with me.

"More trip flares were going off and, by now in gathering dusk, smoke was drifting across the runway as I prepared to start my left engine.

"Suddenly a camouflaged C-47 without markings came flying out of the near darkness and landed out of a very steep turn and descent," Jerry continued. It turned off the runway and headed straight for his plane.

"Its tail swung sharply around and the rear door opened. Someone in green camouflage fatigues with black master sergeant stripes jumped out and grabbed a cardboard box. He walked to the side of our aircraft, smiled and asked, 'could you use this?' He then disappeared back inside the C-47. It revved its engines before vanishing back into the dark and smoky sky as suddenly as it had appeared.

"My back-seater quickly installed the cartridge this unknown figure had brought to us. With both engines started, I asked where the C-47 came from. The controllers didn't know. It had made no radio calls and hadn't even gotten clearance to land or take off. They said they didn't even realize that plane was there until it appeared over the end of the runway."

Upon landing at home base, Jerry went to thank the command post for getting the vital cartridge to him. "They were surprised to see me and assured me that they had nothing to do with it. I checked with the other pilots who had been in the flight that day, and they also had made no calls."

When he related the story to them, he said one pilot laughed and made the comment: "Maybe it was a ghost ..."

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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