Race for Lit­tle Rock mayor has an ethics puz­zle

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - ERIC BES­SON

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.

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