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Arkansas Senate clears Flowers of ethics accusation, delays decision on Clark

It rejects his ethics filing against Flowers by Michael R. Wickline | September 17, 2022 at 9:03 a.m.
Sen. Alan Clark (left) talks with Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey before the start of the Senate session Friday at the State Capitol. After the Senate recessed, Hickey said he doesn’t know when he will reconvene for consideration of the punishment recommended for Clark. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Arkansas Senate on Friday voted to find that Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, did not violate the Senate's ethics rules, after Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, filed an ethics complaint last month against Flowers alleging she violated the chamber's ethics rules.

With Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, abstaining, the Senate voted 29-0 to concur with its Ethics Commission's finding that Flowers didn't violate the Senate's ethics rules. Clark and Flowers joined 27 other senators in voting to find that Flowers didn't violate the Senate's ethics rules.

About two hours later, a divided Senate voted to recess and delay its consideration of its Ethics Committee's finding that Clark's charges of ethics violations against Flowers were spurious, frivolous and retaliatory and recommendation to suspend Clark for the rest of this year and strip him of seniority for the rest of this year and the next two years.

Clark said he disagreed with the committee's findings that his ethics charges against Flowers were spurious, frivolous and retaliatory.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, told senators he made a motion for the Senate to recess in order give Clark more time to prepare his defense because Clark and others have indicated Clark didn't have adequate time to get prepared for Friday's Senate meeting. He said some senators had other obligations for early Friday evening.

Eight days ago, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to approve its findings and recommendations.

But Clark told senators "I want to get this over with. I don't care if you vote not to hear anything I have to say, because do whatever you are going to do." He voted against Dismang's motion.

Afterward, Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he doesn't know when he will reconvene the Senate to resume consideration of the ethics committee's findings and recommendations for punishment against Clark.

"I want to look at everything," Hickey said. "It is always my intent to try to make it whenever I know most members are down here for committee meetings."

The Senate voted Friday to approve Clark's motions to allow him to call the Senate's legal counsel, Steve Cook, and Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Kim Hammer, R-Benton, as witnesses before the Senate, but it rejected Clark's motion to allow him to call Clark's attorney, Clint Lancaster, as a witness.

Last week, the Senate Ethics Committee found that Flowers had not violated any provisions of the Senate's ethics rules and recommended the Senate uphold the committee's finding and not impose any penalties against Flowers because the committee found the issue at hand to be "clerical only."

On Aug. 18, Clark filed an ethics complaint against Flowers alleging she violated the Senate's code of ethics by accepting legislative per diem payments for participating by Zoom in the Senate's regular session meetings in 2021.

During the 2021 regular session amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate adopted emergency procedures stating that senators participating remotely via Zoom in a Senate meeting "will not be counted as present for the purposes of per diem, unless the member has traveled to Little Rock from his or her district for the purpose of participating in the session."

The Senate Ethics Committee said in its report to the Senate that Flowers contacted the Senate staff as soon as she became aware in the 2021 regular session of the deposits in her bank account that she felt had been made in error, and she was assured by Senate staff she was entitled to the payments she received.

Flowers reimbursed the state Senate $2,714 on Aug. 11 and $217.60 on Aug. 22 that was erroneously paid to her during the 2021 regular session, the committee said in its report.

"Senators Flowers acted in a reasonable, responsible and sufficient manner by contacting Senate staff with questions regarding Senate policies and procedures, and relying on the information that she was given by Senate staff," the Senate Ethics Committee said. "Senators should be able to rely on information provided to them by legislative staff, and Senator Flowers' decision to rely on the information provided to her by Senate staff was reasonable and sufficient."

The ethics committee said it's the committee's belief and determination that "clerical errors occurred" in dealing with the unprecedented circumstances of conducting a legislative session during the covid-19 pandemic, which included wholly new procedures and scenarios such as remote participation by senators.

"While regrettable, the clerical errors were understandable and resulted in the unintentional overpayments of reimbursements to senators, including Senator Flowers," the committee said.

Last month, Hickey said he learned from the Senate staff as a result of Clark's inquiries about legislative expense reimbursements to Flowers that Garner and Flowers, who participated in the Senate's meetings through Zoom during the 2021 regular session, were each incorrectly paid per diem.

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

He has 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.

In a check dated Sept. 1, Garner reimbursed the Senate $906, according to Senate records. "Zoom" was written on the check.

Flowers has served in the Senate since 2011 and was in the House of Representatives from 2005-2011. Clark has served in the Senate since 2013.

Flowers is an attorney. Clark is a businessman. They have clashed at times in the Senate.

In its report to the Senate, the Senate Ethics Committee said Clark's allegations against Flowers did not have merit, Clark made repeated public statements regarding his intent to retaliate against the Senate, and Clark's investigation of the facts before filing his ethics complaint against Flowers was reckless with deliberate intent.

The evidence demonstrates Clark singled out Flowers for an ethics complaint and his stated reason for filing his complaint was "untrue," the committee said.

After being provided with additional evidence in Flowers' response to the complaint and through evidence provided to the committee, the committee asked Clark twice if he would like to withdraw his complaint and he refused to do so, the committee said.

The committee said "the only purpose to the filing of the [complaint] and any that he has plans to file going forward, seems to be to fulfill his promise on July 3 to 'burn the house down.'"

The ethics committee recommended the Senate's punishment of Clark include immediate loss of seniority for the remainder of the 93rd General Assembly this year and a recommendation to the 94th General Assembly that Clark's loss of seniority be sustained for the next two years.

The committee also recommended the Senate punish Clark by suspending him for the remainder of the 93rd General Assembly, including the loss of reimbursement for conference registration fees or travel reimbursements related to in-state or out-of-state travel; attendance and participation at legislative committee meetings or Senate meetings, with the exception of any Senate organizational or Senate orientation meetings for the 94th General Assembly, including access to the member and staff only areas of committee rooms and facilities; and access to and use of the Senate, the Bureau of Legislative Research, Legislative Audit and other legislative facilities, equipment or staff resources, including his Senate email account.

Clark is running unopposed for his District 7 seat.

On June 15, Hickey filed an 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.

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

For violating the ethics rule, the Senate's punishment for Clark on July 21 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.


  photo  Sen. Stephanie Flowers sits in the Senate chamber on Friday. Flowers and Sen. Alan Clark joined 27 other senators in voting to find that she didn’t violate Senate rules as Clark had charged. Flowers declined to give a closing statement during the session. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
 
 


Print Headline: Senate stalls decision on penalties for Clark

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