Arkansas lawmakers spent more than 2½ hours Wednesday scrutinizing a decision by the head of the auctioneers and geology licensing boards over her decision to quickly renew an auctioneer license for a North Little Rock-based car dealer.
The issue is over how Gaylen McGee, a Lonoke auctioneer, was able to get his auctioneer license renewed after it had expired about eight years ago and reapproved in a matter of hours. Typically an auctioneer license takes weeks to renew, which includes taking a written and oral exam, a background check, paying fees and classes.
But after a phone call from a staff member at the governor's office to the Department of Labor and Licensing, McGee's license was renewed without any exams or a background check, according to sworn testimony from the meeting. While McGee had to pay fees, an attorney for the Department of Labor and Licensing said, lawmakers tasked themselves during Wednesday's meeting with getting to the bottom of why McGee faced an unusually expedited renewal process for his license.
"It stinks. That's just the bottom line, it stinks," said Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron.
The meeting was called by Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, and lawmakers grilled the three state officials responsible for issuing the license: Kelli Black, director of auctioneers and geology licensing boards; Steve Guntharp, deputy director of the Department of Labor and Licensing; and Dan Parker, an attorney with the department. Payton, a licensed auctioneer and auto dealer, took a personal interest in the case that has become a controversy among the state's 850 licensed auctioneers.
Kicking off Wednesday's meeting was Neal Davis, an auctioneer and real estate broker from Beebe who filed a complaint with the Auctioneers Licensing Board against McGee after receiving a tip about McGee. McGee was set to lead an auction when he was told his license had expired but hours later was able to get it renewed to the surprise of Davis.
Allowing someone without a license to conduct an auction can lead to a maximum fine of $1,000 unless it is for a nonprofit or charity.
McGee held an auctioneer's license as recently as 2015, but the license needs to be renewed every year. The renewal process can be cumbersome, which includes written and oral tests, classes and a background check. McGee's prompt renewal raised concerns among members of the Joint Performance Review Committee, which is tasked with investigating "specific problem areas" of state government.
McGee did not respond to requests for comment from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A phone number listed in an ad for his auction was disconnected, and a call and email to a car dealer in North Little Rock he said he owns went unanswered.
Black said McGee called her about two years ago, inquiring how to renew his license, something Payton said was proof he was aware his license was out of practice.
Payton said a staff member from the governor's office made a call to Guntharp, who then spoke with Black, who can issue licenses. After reviewing a 2014 Arkansas Supreme Court decision, Chandler v. Martin, Parker said that state agencies are required to alert citizens that their licenses may expire before the state makes a decision to revoke them. Parker told Black that to avoid potential litigation she should renew McGee's lapsed license, as there was no paperwork that showed the Auctioneers Licensing Board had given McGee notice.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said the department needs to be consistent in how it applies rules for license renewal.
"The precedent that you are setting if you fall back on that will upend a lot of things in my opinion," Dismang said
But some on the committee said they did not buy Parker's explanation, especially after Roy Ragland, a former state legislator and current chief of staff to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, was asked to speak. Ragland had recently renewed his auctioneer's license as well after he let it lapse for about 10 years.
"I understand why people are upset about it, you know. I personally agree with your position in a way, but from a legal standpoint I thought this was the best thing for us to do," Parker said.
Unlike McGee, Ragland was required to pass a written and oral exam, take classes and pass a background check to receive a new license. Parker said Ragland had knowingly let his license expire, while McGee had continued as if his license was still valid.
Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, asked Parker to explain why McGee was able to renew his license without delay while Ragland had to wait weeks. Later during the hearing, Payton answered Wooten's question, saying "Mr. Ragland made [an] application and Mr. McGee made a phone call."
"You blew this," Wooten told the three state officials. "That legal case has nothing to do with this renewal. You made a definite difference based on the phone call you got from the governor's office. You made your decision on that."
"The Governor's office followed the standard procedure while assisting a lawmaker with an issue their constituent had, a basic and important function of a Governor's office," Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement to the Democrat-Gazette.
Parker said the case had a "squirrely set of facts" that made for a tough case.
"You know, my personal decision might have been different than my legal recommendation, but I had to recommend what I thought the department should do to stay out of any sort of legal obligation," he said.
The final say over McGee's license will be up to the Auctioneers Licensing Board, which will review his license at its next meeting. While lawmakers took no action Wednesday, Sen. Kim Hammer, co-chair of the Joint Performance Review committee, summed up the point of the discussion in his closing remarks, saying he hoped it would "put some light on the situation."