Race for Little Rock mayor has an ethics puzzle
An ethics complaint concerning state Rep. Warwick Sabin’s bid for Little Rock mayor has prompted the city attorney to review a 20-yearold ordinance that limits when campaign money can be collected.
The complaint accuses Sabin of using a state-registered “exploratory committee” to sidestep a Little Rock ordinance that says candidates cannot accept campaign funding until June 2018. City Attorney Tom Carpenter said he is now looking into whether state laws allow the committees to get around the local ordinance.
The first known test of the city’s six-month fundraising period could have broader ramifications for the 2018 city elections, in which six of 10 city director seats are also up for grabs, by indefinitely lengthening the time frame. Four people have publicly disclosed plans to run for city office next year.
A spokesman for Sabin’s campaign said in an emailed statement that Sabin is “complying with all city and state campaign finance” laws and called the ethics complaint a “desperate and misguided attempt” to slow the campaign.
Carpenter said he expects to decide this month whether he believes that the ordinance should apply.
Carpenter is exploring whether the local law concerns committees that register to raise funds prior to someone’s formal candidacy and whether the city can place more restrictions on campaign finances than state law does, he said, among other questions.
“State law has changed since we wrote the restrictions on election monies in [the] city ordinance,” Carpenter said. “I’ve got to see how they work together.”
Carpenter also is looking into how the complaint should be formally handled, he said, but is certain Sabin is not violating the city’s Code of Ethics because it applies only to current officials.
Little Rock’s campaign-finance rules, passed in 1997, were in part reinterpreted seven years ago when Carpenter reviewed state laws concerning what people can do with campaign money after the election. He said he does not recall a previous challenge to when candidates can accept contributions.
Sabin, a Democrat, on July 10 announced plans to “explore a run” for mayor. His campaign filed as the “Sabin For Mayor Exploratory Committee” on July 25 with the Pulaski County clerk, according to a copy of a registration form his campaign provided Wednesday evening.
Arkansas law allows these committees to raise money for potential political candidates and to ultimately transfer the money to the candidate. Sabin is identified on the filing as the committee’s chairman and the person who will receive the money “upon becoming a candidate.”
Sabin’s campaign website includes a form people can use to contribute money.
Little Rock’s ordinance says “contributions to regular election campaigns for municipal office shall be limited to” June 1 to Dec. 1 of an election year. Arkansas Code Annotated 7-6-216 says an exploratory committee can be established for municipal office.
A copy of the ethics complaint, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, says Sabin’s public statements “clearly indicate he is running for Mayor” and characterizes the exploratory committee as “subterfuge.”
The complaint was filed Friday with the city clerk’s office and was signed by Eugene Clifford. It asks for Sabin to be penalized according to local ordinance and seeks to have him return money that he has accepted.
People who violate city ordinances can be fined up to $1,000 and an additional $500 per day when the violation is “unlawfully continued.”
Clifford’s complaint also says Sabin should be “sanctioned” in line with state statute, but he does not list a specific state law. It wasn’t immediately clear whether anyone has filed a similar complaint with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which does not comment on pending complaints.
A message left with a phone number listed for Clifford was not returned.
Carpenter spoke with Sabin by phone Wednesday — and subsequently mailed him a letter — informing him that City Hall had received the complaint.
“I am aware of the constitutional amendment and state statutes on election campaigns that refer to exploratory committees, but I do not believe the City ordinance on this matter has been preempted,” Carpenter wrote.
However, the city attorney is “working through some issues on how this matter should be handled,” he wrote, including whether it was properly filed.
Carpenter asked Sabin to provide a response by Wednesday next week and said he would issue a determination later.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Stodola, who has said he plans to run for re-election, did not return a cellphone message left Wednesday evening.
Carpenter previously reinterpreted a different provision of the same campaign-finance ordinance.
As written, the ordinance says the “balance of funds over expenses” as of Election Day must be either returned to the donors, given to a nonprofit or turned over to the city for its general fund.
State law, however, draws a distinction between “carry-over” money, which can be retained for future elections, and “surplus” funds.
The maximum carry-over amount allowed is equal to the person’s annual salary, and anything above that is considered a surplus, said Carpenter, who issued an opinion in late 2010 that says candidates can maintain carry-over money but must get rid of the surplus.
Stodola’s campaign account held $78,412 as of Jan. 31, according to his latest carry-over fund report filed with the Pulaski County clerk. The mayor’s salary is $160,000.