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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The whistle blows for thee

by John Brummett | September 13, 2022 at 4:29 a.m.

Sen. Alan Clark calls himself a whistle-blower and says he'll be in a better place than his disapproving Senate colleagues when all the facts come out.

For now the only whistle that has blown has blown against him. And the only facts that have come out have come out to his singular detriment.

By the end of this week, his colleagues will remain viable members of the Senate and he indeed may be in a different place, that being suspended from that Senate.

Our story begins with Clark getting caught asking a colleague to sign him in for a legislative committee meeting he was declining to attend, so that he could collect per diem. Then he got cited for that transgression by the Senate ethics committee, which declared him ineligible for per-diem payments and committee chairmanships for the brief remainder of this term, which is year's end.

He declared war on his Senate colleagues for what he declared disproportionate punishment for an acknowledged wrong. He intimated that there were many similar or worse ethics transgressions throughout the Senate expense-reimbursement culture.

His opening salvo was to file a formal ethics complaint against Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff. She got automatic direct deposits of per-diem payments made into her account from the Senate staff for a period when she was staying home and participating by Zoom.

Now we are here: The Ethics Committee met for hours on end and declared unanimously at the end of last week that Flowers was innocent--a victim of a clerical error by the Senate staff of which she herself notified the staff, after which she was eventually advised she should repay a sum of about $3,000, which she did. Then the Ethics Committee recommended, again unanimously, that Clark, on account of filing a frivolous complaint that both weaponized and trivialized ethics regulation, should be suspended from Senate membership through the end of his current term, meaning until January, and removed of his seniority for the coming biennium.

That would mean he wouldn't have standing to file another ethics complaint until next year, when re-inaugurated as functioning senator. And it would mean that, when the Senate organizes itself for the next session beginning in January, he'd go in ranking to 35th of 35 members in terms of seniority and get the short end of committee assignments, seat assignments, parking assignments and office assignments.

Republican members of the Ethics Committee made the sanction motions and Democrats seconded them.

Clark forged bipartisanship, at least.

The only indication Clark has given of supposed facts in his eventual favor is that he calculates that Flowers should have paid back about $6,000 rather than $3,000, based on all the days the Senate was in session for which she was reimbursed though not in attendance.

But the Senate staff and the chamber's Efficiency Committee have a ready explanation for that.

It is by IRS advice that senators get per-diem expenses for every day the Senate is in session whether actually meeting. The Senate routinely takes off Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The IRS holds that a legislator in session is a legislator in session on weekends. Indeed, any serious senator will have constituent work to do on the weekends entailing expenses. The IRS prefers standard per diem for every day of a legislative session rather than actual expenses on some days.

But the per diem on off days may only run four days consecutively. On the fifth day without meeting, the per diem stops.

Flowers was advised to pay back the accumulated per diem for the days the Senate was at work in the Capitol and she participated by Zoom. On off days, she got to keep her deposits just like other senators.

Here's the upshot: She didn't ask for the direct deposit while doing Zoom. She inquired about whether she should be getting the money when she discovered it. She paid back what she was eventually told to pay back.

That's different from asking a senator buddy to sign your name at a Capitol meeting while you go to a meeting at Republican headquarters and then to lunch.

Most Senate observers expect the full body's adoption of the Ethics Committee report on Friday, but with a bit of on-floor contentiousness. Clark may not go quietly. He has a couple of pals who defend him.

And there always is a chance that Flowers--fiery when her resentments overflow--could make one of her patented talks and vote "no" on the basis that losing temporary membership and seniority is too good for this guy.

At some point, the Senate--and the House as well--ought to set up a task force to study per-diem reform.

Actual expenses necessarily incurred by public responsibility--that's one thing. But a simple sign-in at over-abundant meetings strikes me as an easy-money way to get a tax-free supplement from taxpayers, and is another thing.

But it's not an ethical transgression by Stephanie Flowers or any senator. It's a bad policy.


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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