Let’s start with what this post is not: it is not, in any way, a minimization or excuse for what Sen. Paul Bookout did. Quite the opposite, in fact; this is a post showing how use of campaign funds for personal expenses is not a partisan issue.1 It is an ethical issue, and whether you are a state senator or a sitting Lieutenant Governor, you are equally likely to succumb to the temptation to bend or break ethical rules for your own gain when you think no one is looking.
But that’s the thing–on a long enough timeline, someone is always looking.
Which brings us, with minimal ado, to Lt.-Gov.-cum-AR04-candidate Mark Darr.
So, imagine you are a constitutional officer who just won your seat for the first time in 2010. Would you expect to be hosting a lot of fundraisers in 2011? Of course not, because constitutional offices are four-year terms, and Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-203(f) makes it unlawful for any candidate for public office to solicit or accept campaign contributions more than two years before an election at which the candidate seeks nomination or election.
Knowing that it is illegal to solicit or accept funds for a 2014 race in 2011, it would seem weird on its face to see a lot of stuff classified as fundraisers in 2011. But you know what would be even weirder? Seeing stuff classified as fundraisers where the location, the amount spent, and the lack of funds actually raised all strongly suggest that there was no fundraiser and you were just deceptively using campaign funds for things like dinner and gasoline.
Which is exactly what it looks like when you see the following “fundraisers” listed in Mark Darr’s 2011 campaign contribution & expenditure reports:
April 12, 2011 CC&E, pg. 9
I think you can chalk the 1-26 Cotham’s expenditure up to a true debt-retirement fundraiser, since there were a lot of checks entered on 1-31 that would have made sense on the heels of a 1-26 fundraiser. But the other three? To me, that sure looks like a large dinner at Cajun’s, a smaller dinner at Cajun’s, and a pretty good sized dinner at Cotham’s. Aside from a $2000.00 check from Walmart exec Candice Smith on 1-25, there is nothing about those three dinners that would even remotely suggest that they were debt-retirement fundraisers rather than Mark Darr simply dining out and paying for the whole tab. While that might make him a nice fellow, that’s not a fundraiser.
But maybe this is an isolated incident. (Spoiler: It’s not.)
July 11, 2011 CC&E, pg. 10.
I love this CC&E so much. In addition to what is obviously just a dinner for two (or maybe three, if one guest was a light eater) at Sushi Cafe and a similar dinner at Loca Luna, neither of which actually resulted in funds being raised, you also get alleged fundraisers AT GAS STATIONS, including a gas station in the high-traffic metropolitan hub that is Ola, AR (pop. 1,204, give or take). Were you to suggest that those “fundraisers” at Love’s Country Store in Ozark, Pilot in Russellville, and Tobo’s 66 in Fayetteville all seemed to be pretty close in cost and were very close to what it would cost to fill up the gas tank of a large truck, I would not disagree with you.
And that “fundraiser” on 6-1-11 with AR Policy Research, Inc. (a corporation owned by Noelle Nikpour)? There were a handful of checks entered on 6-3, but some of their ties to a fundraiser in Little Rock are tenuous at best (PACs, donors from South Carolina and Shreveport, some people from northwest Arkansas, etc.). Still, we’ll call it a legit fundraiser. Which makes one legit fundraiser on this page.
October 12, 2011 CC&E, pg. 7
Piryx, Inc., is an online fundraising platform that touts how it “only charges a small transaction fee to cover donation processing and our operating costs.” $955 is a chunk, but at least they are a fundraiser. The 9-2-11 payment of $1500.00 to the University of Arkansas for a fundraiser? There’s not a single donor check entered within three weeks of that date. I’m still looking into that payment, but, at first glance, it doesn’t pass the smell test. I’m not saying that the money was likely for a couple season tickets to Razorback games, but I’m not not saying that either.
However, if you are paying attention, you might notice something else about that CC&E: a $163.50 purchase at Dillard’s for “supplies.” In fact, if you look up one page on that CC&E, you’ll also see “supplies” purchase at Jos. A. Bank.
New clothes before a trip to Austin, then more new clothes in early September? Not exactly what I would call “supplies,” but maybe that’s just me. And, heck, two shopping trips isn’t the end of the world, right?
January 7, 2012 CC&E, pg. 6
Oh. Damn. Well…uh…at least those clothes were (likely) for him. It’s not like he was spending money on women’s or girl’s clothing.
January 7, 2012 CC&E, pg. 7
Oh…umm. Well, apparently even Darr realized that this last CC&E was going to raise some eyebrows; a week later, an amended CC&E was filed, replacing the two pages of expenditures with a single page that rolled those last few purchases into the amount repaid to Darr for a campaign loan.
Unfortunately for Darr, Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-203(g)(3) only allows a candidate to treat campaign funds used for personal expenses as a loan to be repaid if those funds are expended prior to the election and only where they are allowable under 203(g)(2) because the candidate is on a leave of absence from his regular, paying job. Once you’ve been elected, you are no longer on a leave of absence from your employment, ESPECIALLY in a non-election year a few months after you take office on a four-year term. (Also, carryover funds may only be taken for purposes not prohibited by the statute, and you can’t take them as personal income at all. See Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-203(h)(1)(E)(4).)
Not to mention, the purpose of amended CC&E reports is to correct something that you overlooked the first time around, not to reclassify expenditures to take them from illegal to “hidden.” If a person can simply loan his campaign money up front, then use the campaign funds like an ATM and chalk it up to loan repayment, the purpose behind having people itemize all expenditures over $100 is completely lost. Just look at the stuff above: Darr had seven expenditures over $100, none of which was a valid use of campaign funds. Letting that disappear and not be a problem simply because he changed how he wanted to report them hardly seems like the intent of the campaign-finance laws.
PLUS, as long as we’re digging into the nuts and bolts of campaign finance, there’s also Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-213, which requires that all CC&E filings “shall be verified by affidavit by the candidate or a person acting in the candidate’s behalf stating that to the best of his or her knowledge and belief the information so disclosed is a complete, true, and accurate financial statement of the candidate’s campaign contributions or expenditures.” Mark Darr signed both the January 17 and January 24 CC&Es (though the signature on the first one looks like he had whomever prepared the report sign his name). How can you swear or affirm that the expenditures on the January 17 CC&E were “complete, true, and accurate” and then file a different expenditure list a week later with a similar attestation?
And that rhetorical question brings us to the end of Part 1. In Part 2, which will hopefully post later this week, we’ll take a look at how Mark Darr’s use of other people’s money changed in 2012.
I suppose, on some level, it’s also an exercise in intellectual honesty, wherein we see whether the people so breathlessly calling for Bookout to resign will say the same thing about Darr. I am not hopeful.↩