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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Wrong, but not completely

by John Brummett | September 21, 2022 at 3:52 a.m.

The ethics morass at the state Senate isn't over, not quite in one case in which it ought to be over, and not at all in another in which it ought not to be.

Sen. Alan Clark, in the case that ought to be over, still wants to get his say, and must be permitted it by fairness. That will occur Tuesday. But he would be better off to take his medicine, even a dose he doesn't think he deserves, and, as they say, move on.

Then he, chastened, could proceed perhaps more credibly into relevant policy discussions, not personal ones, that he says need to take place about whether and how to reform the system of per-diem reimbursement.

That system strikes me as the state Legislature's cookie jar. Clark is not wrong about everything.

He was badly wrong in the baseline thing, which was asking a colleague to sign him in as attending a committee meeting in the Capitol that he had decided not to attend, so that he could collect per-diem expense reimbursement.

He was badly wrong to seem to make light of that transgression and to say things smacking of retaliation. He was wrong to file an ethics complaint against an innocent state Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff and not file a complaint against a Republican pal, Trent Garner, in a similar situation.

Both Flowers and Garner had drawn direct deposits of per diem, like other senators except for those--three of the 35, I've been told--choosing not to take per diem. But Flowers and Garner got the money through clerical errors by the Senate staff for Senate sessions into which they'd participated remotely by Zoom.

Both paid the money back.

So the Senate Ethics Committee recommended and the full Senate agreed to sanction Clark for the opening transgression, which he didn't deny.

When Clark fired back with the complaint against Flowers over the paid-back direct deposits for Zoom, the Senate Ethics Committee recommended and the full Senate agreed to clear her entirely.

But then there was this: The Senate Ethics Committee decided to cite Clark for bringing a frivolous, retaliatory complaint and proposed to strip him of seniority in the next session beginning in January.

On Friday, after the Senate voted 29-0 to accept the recommendation to exonerate Flowers altogether--with Clark, get this, voting to exonerate her on the complaint he'd brought--Clark stood to defend himself against the second issue, which was the charge of frivolous action carrying a sanction of lost seniority. He wanted to call witnesses, including his private counsel. He had exhibits and what-not.

Everything wound up in a procedural brouhaha. A quietly efficient leader of the Senate, Jonathan Dismang, suggested that the case against Clark be deferred to give Clark more time to get straight on what he could and could not do under the rules in terms of a presentation.

Clark professed not to want a deferral, but the Senate voted 20-to-9 to give him one anyway subject to the call of the president pro tem.

It is possible--because senators don't always declare all their reasons for what they do--that, with Clark threatening to take his defense late into Friday evening, senators would start heading for dinner and there wouldn't be the requisite 18 votes left to impose the recommended sanctions on Clark.

Here is what seems to be the method in Clark's madness: He voted to accept the exoneration of Flowers because he asserts he meant her no personal offense in the first place--she took plenty, though--but to raise the point of senators getting per-diem deposits for days not attending Senate sessions.

It turns out that all senators participating in per diem get deposits for weekends when the Senate is in a legislative session but isn't meeting, and does so by Senate Efficiency Committee policy as permitted by IRS guideline.

For whatever reasons, and petulance and obsessiveness are conceivably among them, Clark wants to assail that policy from the Senate floor to show that the system needs to be changed.

His argument in the context of his defense would be that it can't be frivolous when you raise a legitimate policy issue. It's that he accepts and voted accordingly that Flowers is not going to be personally cited or sanctioned, but, darnit, expense reimbursements without expenses are just not right.

He could have made the policy case rather than the personal one in the first place.

One thing he could do now is take the seniority sanction and live grudgingly with it, because he's probably going to get it anyway, and explain that the experience has made him aware of broader flaws in the per-diem system that he intends to take to the Senate Efficiency Committee.

As things now stand, the Senate will re-gather for Clark's day in court, with his pleading not guilty of any frivolity.

Nothing, though, is likely to change the public perception that he is whining about getting caught and being petulant or retaliatory.

Not, to repeat, that he is wrong about everything.

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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