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Legislative scrutiny intensifies over Arkansas corrections board procurement practices

Alonza Jiles of the Arkansas Board of Corrections speaks to the Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)
Arkansas Advocate
Alonza Jiles of the Arkansas Board of Corrections speaks to the Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)

An Arkansas legislative panel will meet today to vote on next steps after concluding its investigation of potential violations of procurement law by the state Board of Corrections.

The Joint Performance Review Committee has spent three meetings this month examining the board’s hiring of attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan to represent it in litigation with the state. The board hired Mehdizadegan in a three-minute public meeting after a half-hour executive session in December. Lawmakers have taken issue with the lack of a formal bid process for the contract and the board’s lack of public discussion and votes on the agreement.

In March, the board asked the Arkansas Legislative Council for an emergency, retroactive appropriation of $207,000 to pay the attorney for representing it in two lawsuits.

Due to the absence of several committee members at Monday’s meeting, Joint Performance Review failed to pass a motion to recommend that the Legislative Council not review Mehdizadegan’s contract and to send transcripts and recordings of witness testimony to the state Office of Inspector General.

The motion, sponsored by Sen. Jim Petty, R-Van Buren, also called for the committee to make the following statements to the council that:

  • The Board of Corrections disregarded government transparency laws, including the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
  • The board did not have the financial or statutory authority to hire Mehdizadegan.
  • Board members acknowledged to the committee their “lack of process” for board meetings and procurement.
  • The committee’s investigation yielded “perceived and discussed violations of law.”

Witnesses questioned by Joint Performance Review this month

  • Attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan
  • Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness
  • Board of Corrections Secretary Lee Watson
  • Board members William “Dubs” Byers, Rev. Tyrone Broomfield, Brandon Tollett, Alonza Jiles and Lona McCastlain
  • Department of Corrections Chief Financial Officer Chad Brown and Chief of Staff Wade Hodge

The 30-member committee had 16 members present Monday, the minimum for a quorum, and 11 voted for the motion. Chairman Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, did not vote.

The following members voted no: Rep. Jim Wooten, Republican of Beebe; Rep. Jamie Scott, Democrat of North Little Rock, and Reps. Ashley Hudson and Joy Springer, both Little Rock Democrats.

Wooten said in an interview he believed the board had not intended to break any laws even though Mehdizadegan’s hiring “should have been handled differently.”

“I think they were just operating under pressure,” he said.

BackgroundThe board has been embroiled in a dispute since November with Attorney General Tim Griffin, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and former Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri over who has ultimate authority over Arkansas’ prison system.

Two 2023 state laws — Act 185 and Sections 79 and 89 of Act 659 — removed the corrections secretary, director of correction and director of community corrections from the board’s purview. The board took the stance that these laws violate Amendment 33 of the Arkansas Constitution, which grants some independence to the boards of state universities and corrections.

Board Chairman Benny Magness wrote a letter to Sanders in November stating that he believed Profiri was violating the amendment. Sanders did not respond, and she directed Profiri in December to move ahead with parts of a temporary prison expansion without board approval, which made the need to hire outside counsel “an emergency,” board Secretary Lee Watson told lawmakers on April 4.

Sanders’ order to Profiri gave the board no time to go through the state’s procurement process, which includes requests for qualifications and bids from multiple candidates, Watson and Mehdizadegan both testified. Watson said he had already contacted Mehdizadegan in November to ask for informal input about the two laws and Profiri’s conduct.

Mehdizadegan has been representing the Board of Corrections in both its legal challenge against the two laws and Griffin’s suit against the board for allegedly violating the FOIA in Mehdizadegan’s hiring.

Magness told Joint Performance Review both on April 4 and Monday that he instructed Watson to reach out to an attorney in case the board sued the state. Griffin’s office usually represents state agencies in legal cases, but Arkansas law allows special counsel to be appointed in disputes between the attorney general and constitutional officers.

Upon questioning from lawmakers, Magness acknowledged that at least two board members discussing board business counts as a meeting under FOIA.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, asked Magness if his request to Watson counted as a meeting that went undocumented. Magness said he believed the instruction was standard practice when dealing with board members who also serve as liaisons with the Department of Corrections, but said he would seek clarification on the legality of the behavior.

“That would essentially be the workaround for all FOIA law in relation to two or more people meeting, and your staff is in the back nodding their heads ‘yes’ to all of this,” Dismang said.

Lona McCastlain, whom Sanders appointed to the board in February, told committee members Monday she hopes to institute FOIA training for board members.

She also said she believed the board needed to communicate better and be “a little more professional, a little bit sharper and more precise.”

“I believe that you have really good people with really good intentions trying to do the best that they can for the mission that they’ve been assigned,” McCastlain said. “…Because a lot of them have been on the board for so long, it’s just like someone that’s been in office for so long: it gets a little bit relaxed, and you’re just so accustomed to doing it a certain way.”

‘An unusual situation’In addition to Magness and McCastlain, Joint Performance Review heard testimony from board member Alonza Jiles on Monday.

Jiles said he voted against hiring Mehdizadegan at the board’s Dec. 8 meeting because he had doubts about hiring outside counsel in the dispute with Profiri.

“We tried to have open communications with [Profiri] at the time, for several months, and that was not happening, so I knew that something needed to happen,” Jiles said. “I just didn’t know if what was done was the right thing to do at the time.”

The committee subpoenaed Jiles and Mehdizadegan after they were not present at its April 11 meeting. Members expressed concerns Monday that Jiles was not present April 4 or April 11; he said he would have appeared Monday even without a subpoena.

Sanders, Griffin and several lawmakers have called on Jiles to resign from the board in light of allegations in a civil lawsuit that he covered up child sex abuse at a youth camp. Jiles has refused to resign.

He repeated Monday that he will not resign, in response to questions from Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, regarding his absence at previous committee meetings.

Meanwhile, Mehdizadegan said in an interview that he was frustrated to be subpoenaed after being told lawmakers would not have questions for him at the April 11 committee meeting. He fielded questions from the committee for about two hours on April 4.

He also said he disagreed with Petty’s motion and was “glad it failed.”

“This is obviously an unusual situation that was borne out of the Legislature passing an unconstitutional law in the first place,” Mehdizadegan said.

Wooten said he believed the dispute between executive branch officials might not have “mushroomed into a sad situation” if Sanders had “handled the whole situation differently.”

“I don’t agree with calling a press conference and bashing the board,” he said, referring to Sanders’ public statement in November that the board had refused to approve the temporary prison expansion “for no good reason whatsoever” and was “playing games that put Arkansans in harm’s way.”

Editor's Note: The story Arkansas committee concludes probe of Corrections Board’s hiring of outside counsel appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.
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.