Arkansas Senator suspended after filing a 'frivolous' complaint against lawmaker
The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday (Sept. 27) to concur with a Senate Ethics Committee finding that Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, had filed a “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory” ethics petition against Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.
Votes were 26-4 on three separate motions. One affirmed that Clark had filed the unmerited charges. Another moved him to 35th in seniority in the Senate and to recommend to next year’s 94th General Assembly that he remain there. The 94th convenes Jan. 9. The third was to suspend him until the end of Jan. 8, 2023, from Senate activities except for organizational and orientation meetings of the 94th General Assembly, including having the use of staff, his Senate license plate, Senate digital devices, and his email account.
Clark was on vacation and did not attend the session – a fact pointed out by several senators.
Voting against the motions were Sens. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark; Charles Beckham, R-McNeil; Trent Garner, R-El Dorado; and Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale. Clark was listed as abstaining. In addition to Clark, the other senators not present were Sens. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne; James Sturch, R-Batesville; Jason Rapert, R-Conway; and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
After two-and-a-half hours of sometimes contentious debate, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, moved the Senate consider that Clark had filed the “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory” petition. The vote came 11 days after the Senate had voted to recess on the issue in another session when Clark was present.
Earlier that day, it had voted 29-0 to concur with the Senate Ethics Committee finding that Flowers had not violated ethics rules when she at first was paid $3,000 in per diem expenses during the 2021 regular session when she had attended meetings remotely. The committee found that Flowers had contacted the Senate staff with questions about the deposits into her bank account and had been told she was entitled to the payments. Flowers reimbursed the Senate almost $3,000 in two payments in August after Clark had begun inquiring about them. He filed the ethics complaint against her on Aug. 18 – after her first payment of $2,714 and before her second of $217.60.
Clark’s ethics filings against Flowers came after the Senate on July 21 approved the Ethics Committee’s findings that he had violated ethics rules when he asked Johnson to sign his name indicating he had attended a Boys State Committee meeting when he had not done so. Signing his name made him eligible for $155 in per diem expenses.
Clark then was stripped of his committee chair and vice chair posts and barred from receiving per diem and mileage reimbursements for the rest of the year. He had been chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and held other chair and vice chair posts. Johnson also was barred from receiving per diem and mileage reimbursements and was stripped of his vice chair positions.
Much of the debate centered around what senators called Clark’s retaliatory actions. On June 22, Clark submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all supplemental sign-in sheets for the last 10 years. In a story published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on July 3, he was quoted saying he would become “a little meaner” and also said, “When it comes to Mark [Johnson], I will burn the house down.” On Aug. 9, he made a Facebook post titled “Secrets to Giant Killing” where he apparently compared himself to David in the Bible. Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who had filed the ethics complaint against Clark, had told the committee that Clark had drafted complaints against 30- 32 other senators.
Garner, Ballinger, and Johnson defended Clark by saying that, without legal representation present, he was not being afforded due process or given a chance to defend himself or present evidence. Garner said that Clark had not broken any laws. Ballinger, an attorney, said hearings are routinely postponed, including because someone is on vacation.
Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, replied that the Senate was engaged in an administrative process for a penalty hearing, not a court of law. He was one of several senators who expressed frustration with Clark’s decision not to interrupt his vacation to be present at the hearing.
“He had the ability to be here, just like every one of us,” he said. “I got off the combine twice to be here. I got one time of the year to plant a crop, and I got one time a year to get a crop out. I have not had a vacation in six years, but I’m here.”
Garner argued that the fact that Flowers had repaid the money showed the complaint was not frivolous. He said that $4,000 had been returned to the taxpayers as a result of Clark’s actions – Flowers’ $3,000 and another $1,000 that had been discovered to be improperly paid to Garner.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, the chair of the Ethics Commission, noted that Clark had not filed a complaint against Garner even though Garner was in a similar situation. Clark had said he focused on Flowers because her receiving of the money was more egregious. But at the time, he did not know how much money Garner had received.
In his closing remarks, Hammer said, “The question you need to consider in deciding to vote for or against this is, ‘Have we been used? Has the institution of the Senate been used? And for what purpose and what reason and to whose advantage, and what cause is being advanced because we’ve been used?’”
Garner and Ballinger argued that the Senate’s actions would disenfranchise Clark’s 87,000 constituents. Sen. Missy Irvin, a member of the Ethics Committee, disagreed, saying, “He’s the one that jeopardized his ability to serve his constituents. That’s not on me. That’s not on this body. Those were choices that Sen. Clark made when he went down this path.”
Afterward, senators voted to change the rules so that it takes three or more members to bring an ethics charge against a fellow senator. The motion carried on a voice vote with no audible dissenters. Hickey, who proposed the change, said charges would advance even if one of the three senators withdrew from the filing. That senator would not be subject to punishment if the filing were found to be without merit.