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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Ethics petulance aplenty

by John Brummett | September 8, 2022 at 3:35 a.m.

Ethics escapades proceed apace at the state Senate where Sen. Alan Clark got cited for getting a pal to sign him into a meeting he didn't attend.

He now is trying either to get back at everyone, or suggest the Senate culture fudges on per-diem reimbursement, or demonstrate the folly of the Senate's relatively new ethics-regulation process, or simply engage in petulance.

Clark recently got sanctioned--removed of his chairmanships and denied per diem, but only for the rest of the year--after acknowledging that, yes, he decided one day not to come into the Capitol because he was feeling poorly and children were present, and called Sen. Mark Johnson to sign him into the meeting he was eschewing.

So, the Senate Ethics Committee met last week past supper time on a promise to get finished that day with Clark's first nettlesome back-at-you complaint. It says Sen. Stephanie Flowers Zoomed into Senate sessions last year but got automatic direct deposits of per diem for travel expenses not incurred.

The Senate staff acknowledges it made the error and Flowers has paid back the accumulated deposits.

The issues seem easy enough and sources said they've pretty much been dispensed with by the committee, which will make a report to the full Senate, which will convene to take any real action.

Bear in mind that the ethics rule Clark disdains as unworkable and an invitation for personal senator-against-senator vendettas contains a provision that these matters be kept secret until completed.

So, when I say that I have been told by someone well-placed but not a senator that Flowers will be cleared and that the bigger issue is whether to cite Clark for a frivolous complaint, bear in mind that I can say that only if that well-placed someone who is not a senator was told something he shouldn't have been told or heard something far down the inevitable rumor chain. Or misheard it. Or made it up.

I'm not sure what a frivolous-complaint sanction against the already-sanctioned Clark would look like. The ethics rule provides that filers of frivolous complaints may be sanctioned by the same range of sanctions available for findings of unethical conduct. I don't know that it would matter much if Clark got stripped of his chairmanships twice for the remainder of the year. Once would seem sufficient.

Clark wore an "E" around his neck to spoof the ethics sanction. Maybe he'd wear an "F" next.

For "frivolous," I probably should make clear.

Clark tells me by text it "simply isn't true" that, as I had heard and relayed to him, he has filed Freedom of Information requests for a decade's worth of senators' supplemental sign-in sheets and has vowed 32 forthcoming ethics complaints.

Actually, he acknowledged that this newspaper had filed an FOI request on his FOI requests and found that, yes, he had filed for those supplemental sign-in sheets. What is untrue, he said, is that he has vowed to pepper the Senate with 32 ethics cases from them.

He said he merely got curious when a couple of senators professed not to know anything about supplemental sign-in sheets. He said it turns out a lot of senators know about them.

Clark said he'd filed but one ethics complaint, against Flowers, and it was "serious" and we would know that when the facts come out. All I'm talking about is scuttlebutt, the availability of which only goes to prove, Clark said, that the ethics regulation system is not working as designed.

About those "supplemental sign-in sheets," let me first remind of the original sign-in sheets. Those are the documents senators are to sign when they come into official meetings; the signature qualifies them for per-diem expense reimbursement.

The supplemental sign-in sheets are maintained by the staff and are available to senators who attended meetings but were so engrossed in the policy nuance or their service to constituents--perhaps--that they neglected to sign the original sheet. They may phone in to be signed to the supplemental list, but the committee chairman must verify their attendance for reimbursement to be issued.

Was there ever a case of a senator doing a supplemental signing and the money being denied because the chairman said he wasn't there? Wouldn't that be identical to Clark's transgression? I'm just thinking out loud.

Through it all, ethics regulation in public service is important, or ought to be.

Oh, and a reminder of the beginning and basic truth: It's not right to ask someone to sign you in as attending a meeting you're not attending, thus seeking per-diem reimbursement to which you're not entitled.

P.S.--A correction. I wrote in a recent column that Clark as Judiciary Committee chairman once told Flowers to stop talking as she ranted about guns. He told me that, if I listened closely, I'd hear that, as Flowers talks over him, he tells her she's going to have to stop the profanity, which violates Senate rules of decorum. I listened, and did hear that, faintly.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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