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Lawmakers probe lawyer's hiring by Arkansas Corrections Board

Arkansas Board of Corrections member Brandon Tollett answered questions from lawmakers during a legislative hearing on April 11, 2024.
Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Board of Corrections member Brandon Tollett answered questions from lawmakers during a legislative hearing on April 11, 2024.

A legislative panel issued subpoenas Thursday to compel the appearance of a member of the state Board of Corrections and its outside counsel at an April 22 hearing.

The Joint Performance Review Committee has been looking into possible violations of state procurement law surrounding the Arkansas Board of Corrections’ hiring of a lawyer to represent it in litigation with the state. The committee heard testimony for six hours on April 4 from several prison board members and attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan, whom the board voted to hire on Dec. 8.

Lawmakers are investigating changes Mehdizadegan made to a procurement form and how the corrections board came to hire him without a formal bid process. In March, the board sought an emergency, retroactive appropriation of $207,000 to pay the attorney.

On Thursday, the committee issued subpoenas for Mehdizadegan and corrections board member Alonza Jiles, who has not yet appeared in response to lawmakers’ invitation to testify.

“Believe it or not, this body has some authority,” committee co-chair Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, said in explaining the subpoenas. “We don’t use it that often, but when the Legislature is ignored, it is our responsibility to hold those people accountable in order to get them into this room to answer questions of this body.”

The panel heard Thursday from two prison board members: Rev. Tyrone A. Broomfield, who’s been on the board for close to 30 years, and Brandon Tollett, whom the governor appointed in late December after the board hired Mehdizadegan. Two Department of Corrections officials, Chief Financial Officer Chad Brown and Chief of Staff Wade Hodge, also testified.

The board and the department are separate entities, but the board has no source of funds independent of the department, Brown told lawmakers.

Brown testified he first became aware the board likely violated state procurement law the same day it voted to hire the attorney, when the corrections department’s chief procurement officer brought it to his attention.

After researching the issue and consulting other officials, Brown said he sent the Board of Corrections a memo on Jan. 19 outlining how they violated the procurement process and recommending two ways to resolve the matter: by seeking ratification of the lawyer’s contract through the procurement process or instructing the private counsel to file a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission.

Responding to legislators’ questions, Brown said the corrections board held a 30-minute executive session in which board chair Benny Magness and member Lee Watson referred to a circuit ruling that declared the board had the right to hire its own attorney.

“I said that may be true, but the funds come through the department,” Brown said.

Someone on the prison board should have been in contact with the procurement office before it hired the attorney to determine what process it should have followed, he said.

“I’m not sure the department should have been involved in this,” Brown told the committee. “This is the board’s contract, not the department’s. It’s not the corrections department’s role to negotiate a contract.”

Rep. Tara Shephard, D-Little Rock, asked Brown whether he felt the prison board intentionally violated the procurement law.

“I told the board, ‘I don’t think you did this maliciously,’” Brown said.

When Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, asked Brown about his contacts with the board’s compliance attorney, Mark Colbert, the corrections department official responded that when he texted Colbert about the possible solutions to the dilemma, the board attorney told him not to send questions via email.

Gilmore expressed concern that this seemed to be another attempt by people connected to the board “to get around FOIA,” the state Freedom of Information Act.

Gilmore and other legislators also asked whether board members had threatened Brown’s employment during the January executive session. Brown responded that they had not.

Lawmakers asked a similar question of Hodge, who noted that Magness said in an open board meeting that “we had to pick a side” in the ongoing legal dispute with the Sanders administration over the extent of the board’s authority.

Editor's Note: This story Arkansas lawmakers subpoena two in probe of Corrections Board’s hiring of outside counsel appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Arkansas Advocate intends to show how state government affects the lives of everyday Arkansans so they can make informed decisions about themselves, their families and their communities.