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Arkansas panel meets for 9 hours on ethics complaint filed against Sen. Stephanie Flowers, makes no decision

Senator raised questions about colleague’s per diem by Michael R. Wickline | September 2, 2022 at 3:46 a.m.
Arkansas state Sens. Alan Clark (left), R-Lonsdale, and Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, are shown in these undated courtesy photos.

The Arkansas Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday didn't rule on an ethics complaint filed by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, against Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, after meeting for more than nine hours about the complaint in executive session.

With the Ethics Committee still in an executive session Thursday night, Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity said the committee wouldn't make a decision on the ethics complaint that night.

Clark said he was informed the committee wouldn't make a decision on his ethics complaint against Flowers on Thursday night. He declined to comment further.

The committee ended its meeting at about 8:30 p.m. and plans to reconvene at noon next Thursday.

At the outset of the committee's meeting, Committee Chairman Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said it was his intent to finish the hearing and the deliberations Thursday on the ethics complaint that he received Aug. 18, and for the committee to stay as late as needed to do so. He said he also intended to hold the committee's hearing in an executive session under the Senate'e ethics rules unless a majority of the committee members overruled him. None of the committee's seven other members made a motion to overrule him.

Arkansas Senate records show that Flowers turned in a check dated Aug. 11 to reimburse the Senate for $2,714 for 46 days of per diem payments. Flowers also turned in a second check dated Aug. 22 to the Senate for an additional $217.60 in per diem and mileage reimbursements, according to records obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

In a check dated Thursday, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, reimbursed the Senate $906. "Zoom" was written on the check.

Flowers is paid a reduced per diem rate because she resides within 50 miles of the state Capitol. Garner is paid the regular per diem rate because he lives more than 50 miles from the state Capitol.

Flowers' reimbursements to the Senate came after Clark queried the Bureau of Legislative Research in the last week of July about how many Senate Judiciary Committee meetings Flowers had attended in the 2021 regular session and how many meetings she attended by Zoom, according to bureau records.

Nearly three weeks ago, Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he learned from the Senate staff as a result of Clark's inquiries that Flowers and Garner, who participated in the Senate's meetings through Zoom during the 2021 regular session, were incorrectly paid per diem.

"I personally looked at it as a clerical error," Hickey said in an interview when asked why he didn't file an ethics complaint against Flowers.

Hickey said he asked the Senate's staff how they would have handled a similar matter several years ago and that members indicated they would allow the senators to repay the money they were incorrectly paid. Flowers and Garner agreed to repay the Senate what they were incorrectly reimbursed, he said.

Neither Garner nor Flowers, who is a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, could be reached for comment by telephone Thursday night.

Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis has temporarily replaced Flowers on the Senate Ethics Committee. Senate ethics rules state that if the respondent or claimant of an ethics complaint is a member of the ethics committee, the Senate president pro tempore or his designee, or the minority party leader or his designee, is required to serve in lieu of the respondent member or claimant.

Besides Hammer and Ingram, the other members of the Senate Ethics Committee include Sens. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith; Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro; Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock; and Dave Wallace, R-Leachville.

Senators have been largely reluctant to talk about ethics complaints until after the Ethics Committee takes action on the complaints since the Senate in January 2021 changed its ethics rules to state that "A Senator shall not make an allegation of a violation verbally in a meeting of the Senate or by any other means outside the [ethics complaint] petition and committee process of these rules."

A senator who improperly brings an allegation of a violation may be subject to any of the penalties set forth in the Senate's ethic rules under a rule change adopted in January 2021. These penalties range from a letter of caution to expulsion.

The Senate's rule change in January 2021 came more than two months after Garner publicly announced to senators that he was filing an ethics complaint against Sen. Jim Hendren, who is now an independent from Sulphur Springs. Garner's announcement surprised many senators, including members of the Senate Ethics Committee.

In November 2020, the state Senate initially dismissed Garner's ethics complaint against Hendren as frivolous. The Senate Ethics Committee later held a closed hearing on Garner's complaint and recommended the Senate dismiss the complaint before Garner withdrew the complaint.

That complaint was the first ethics complaint filed against a state senator under the Senate's overhauled ethics rules adopted in June 2018. The overhaul of the Senate's ethics rules, led by Hendren, came after federal investigations in the previous few years led to the convictions of several former state lawmakers.

On June 15, Hickey filed the second and third ethics complaints against state senators under these revised ethics rules.

He filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, for Johnson signing in Clark's name on the sign-in sheet for reimbursement at the Senate Boys State committee meeting June 3 that Clark didn't attend. He also filed a complaint against Clark for asking Johnson to seek reimbursement from public funds for Clark for that meeting. The Senate didn't pay the $155 per diem to Clark for that meeting at the behest of Senate leaders.

On July 21, the Senate approved the Ethics Committee's findings that Clark and Johnson violated the Senate's ethics rules as well as the committee's recommended punishments.

Clark told senators that he made a mistake and it won't happen again.

The Senate's punishment for Clark was to strip him of his committee chairman and vice chairman posts and block his eligibility for per diem and mileage reimbursement for the rest of this year. He also was reprimanded by the Senate, and future Senate president pro tempores are not to consider Clark for appointment to serve on Boys State, Girls State or the Senate Ethics Committee.

Clark had been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vice chairman of the Legislative Council Review Subcommittee, co-chairman of the Legislative Council Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee, and chairman of the Child Maltreatment Investigations Oversight Committee.

Print Headline: Panel meets for 9 hours on ethics complaint filed against Pine Bluff senator


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