Thursday, October 6, 2022

Questions Remain About Bill Gossage’s AEC Hiring and Duties

It is not the type of story that tends to generate a lot of interest, especially not in 2022, when every week seems to bring a new, fresh kind of hell on the national and local level. So you would be forgiven if you missed the drama surrounding former Arkansas State Representative Bill Gossage (R-Ozark).

Long story short, in 2016, Gossage resigned his legislative seat to take a position with Gov. Asa Hutchinson office as Deputy Chief of Staff of External Operations, and he held that position until August of this year, when the Governor announced that Gossage had resigned to take a job as Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas (“AEC”).

As Debra Hale-Shelton reported for the Arkansas Times, Gossage’s last day at the Governor’s office was August 26. A day earlier, on August 25, in preparation for his new job with AEC, Gossage registered with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office as a lobbyist.

Once people learned of this registration, it was quickly pointed out to Gossage and AEC that, under state law, Gossage could not register to be a lobbyist until he had been away from his employment with the Governor’s office for at least one year. When this was brought to Gossage’s attention, he asked the Secretary of State to rescind his lobbyist registration, and he told the Times that he would “continue to work as the VP of governmental relations but will not engage in lobbying activities for the next year.”1

So…problem solved?

Not really. I mean, I suppose it’s good that he is no longer registered as a lobbyist, but this whole thing raises a number of questions that still have not been answered.

First off, there’s the whole question of why Gossage thought it would be ok for him to register as a lobbyist. The one-year prohibition comes from Senate Bill 331, which became Act 486 of 2013 and which reads, in pertinent part:

An individual employed in the office of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer of State, Auditor of State, or Commissioner of State Lands is not eligible to be registered asa lobbyist…until one…year after the expiration of the individual’s employment in that office.

And, were one to pull the voting record for Act 486 of 2013, one would see this:

That’s right–Bill Gossage voted for the very act that prohibited him from registering as a lobbyist!2 He knew (or should have known) that it was not legal for him to register for one year from the time he left the Governor’s office, yet he chose to register before he even left the Governor’s office in the first place. Which, as always, can only mean one of two things: (1) Gossage is so clueless about the laws that apply to lobbyists that he really was unaware that a law that he voted for prohibited him from registering as a lobbyist when he did; (2) Gossage knew that he technically couldn’t register as a lobbyist, but he decided to roll the dice and hope that no one noticed. There are no other potential answers, and neither of these option is a good look for Gossage.

Related to this first question are a small handful of follow-up questions that we can just think of collectively as 1(a): Even if we assume that Gossage was clueless and didn’t realize that he could not register as a lobbyist, why did no one else involved realize this and say something? Did no one at the Governor’s office pause and say, “hey, Swamp Gas, you know you can’t actually do any lobbying, right?” Did no one see the Governor’s statement about Gossage’s resignation before it was released and tell the Governor that it was a bad idea to announce to everyone that Gossage was taking a lobbyist job? And, more to the point, if no one had noticed Gossage’s registration and called him out on this, would he have just gone about his business, engaging in an activity he was prohibited from undertaking while he and everyone else involved just smiled and ignored the law?

That last one actually segues us nicely to second big-picture question that still needs to be answered: if Gossage is not going to do any lobbying for a year–which is what he is now claiming–what is he actually going to be doing for AEC for the next 350ish days that would justify his salary?

What I mean is, the VP of Governmental Affairs position is, at its heart, a lobbyist position. You can read the job announcement here. Some obviously-this-is-lobbying highlights from the job description:

  • “The VP of Governmental Affairs leads and coordinates all activities related to legislation and public policy initiatives on behalf of the electric distribution cooperatives, statewide services company (AECI) and generation and transmission cooperative (AECC) in Arkansas. This involves developing and maintaining relationships and being an active liaison with elected officials and governmental agencies at the local, state and federal levels to ensure electric cooperative concerns are appropriately considered in the legislative process.”
  • “Serves as the lobbyist, electric cooperative liaison and point of contact with governmental agencies, elected officials, and other organizations concerning issues important to electric cooperatives. Must be able to understand and articulate the position of the electric cooperatives to government officials and the public.”
  • “Plans and leads activities involved with an annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C. with the Arkansas Members of the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives. This includes meetings with our Congressional delegation and their staff, as well as a social event for them and other individuals from various governmental agencies.”
  • “Participates and attends legislative and political functions in Arkansas and Washington, D.C. including legislative committee meetings, legislative sessions, and candidate fundraisers.”
  • “Communicates orally and/or by writing to the general public and government officials the position of the electric cooperatives as it relates to specific issues.”
  • “Monitors legislation and policy initiatives in order to inform our member systems and to ascertain whether action is required to influence these matters. Disseminates this information to staff members, employees, members systems and government officials as appropriate.”
  • “Supervises the activities of the Governmental Affairs Specialist in the performance of planning and completing various division initiatives, including but not limited to: updating our legislative app and directory, filing lobbyist and PAC reports with the Arkansas Secretary of State, planning and executing special events in Arkansas and Washington, D.C., monitoring and advising on current events and legislative/political issues.”
  • “Fosters, develops, and maintains positive relationships with elected officials, government agency officials and other individuals and organizations in the public and private sector as it relates to the promotion and advancement of electric cooperative issues.”

All told, of the twelve bullet points under “Responsibilities” on that job description, seven of them are basically just various aspects of lobbying. (And one of the ones that is not lobbying related is “Handles stress effectively and works well with others,” so realistically it is seven of eleven responsibilities that are lobbying or lobbying adjacent.

That being the case, again I ask: If he isn’t lobbying, what is he going to do over the next year that would justify a salary that we can safely assume is north of $100,000? Is AEC really going to pay him more than twice the Arkansas median salary to twiddle his thumbs for a year, waiting for the all-clear to start actually doing 2/3 of his job? Or is this is going to be a situation where Gossage is doing everything that he would otherwise be doing in this job, but he just won’t call it “lobbying.” I suspect it’s the latter, but, hoooooo boy, would that be a terrible look for AEC (and it’s certainly something that people will be keeping an eye on now).

Actually…speaking of AEC, there’s an even broader question here that deserves an answer: why was Gossage hired at all, considering he didn’t meet the qualifications for the job in the first place??

Looking at the job description again, the sole requirement listed for someone who wanted to be Vice President of Governmental Affairs for AEC is “Bachelor’s Degree and 15 years related experience and/or training, and 10 years related management experience, or equivalent combination of education and experience.”

Gossage is a retired public school administrator who spent 34 years as an educator. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He was in the legislature from January 2013 until he abruptly quit before the end of his second term in August 2016 to take the job with the Governor’s office, so he has six years’ experience in something that is possibly related to the actual job duties the AEC requires.

Even if we’re generous and count his 3.5ish years in the legislature as experience, he still only has 9.5 years “related experience and/or training.” He appears to have zero years of “related management experience,” but let’s pretend like his six years with the Governor’s office also applies there. You still have a job that asks for 15 years of direct experience, of which he has 9.5, and ten years of related management experience, of which he has at most six. Is AEC really pretending like Gossage’s time as an assistant superintendent in Ozark, AR, is an “equivalent combination of education and experience?”

So, again, I am left to wonder why AEC would hire a guy who lacks the qualifications for the job and cannot legally do the majority of the job duties until August 26, 2023.

Former legislators getting jobs that they aren’t qualified to do is far from uncommon in this state. But even by the lax standards of Arkansas’s good-ol’-boy system, this Gossage thing looks bad. Even if Gossage does not think it’s that big of a deal, this hiring is a black eye for Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas no matter how you look at it.

***

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  1. We’ll come back to this.

  2. Somewhere, Trent Garner nods a sad, knowing nod.

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