Tuesday, September 23, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Baker’s ethics

Only in the Arkansas state government could a lawmaker use a vacuous legal opinion from a spineless state agency to justify unethical conduct.

That was the spectacle last week when the state Ethics Commission issued a legal opinion saying it could not say whether it was wrong for the University of Central Arkansas to rent a tent for a political fund-raiser for a former university professor, Gilbert Baker, the former state Republican chairman who is in a hard race for re-election to the state Senate.

Baker was a personal and political friend of the free-wheeling pol who was president of the university at that time, Lu Hardin. Hardin has since resigned after serial misdeeds and taken a $1 million parachute with him. Baker’s fund-raiser was at the home of a Republican member of the university’s board of trustees.

Baker issued a statement saying he was thrilled that the Ethics Commission had vindicated him.

What the Ethics Commission said, in answer to a query from Baker, was that it probably was legal for UCA to rent a tent to someone as long as it was available for renting to anyone under the same conditions. The commission couldn’t say under what conditions the tent would have been available to others, for example, Baker’s opponent, Joe White.

White said it never occurred to him to ask to borrow the state tent and he wouldn’t have been so unprincipled as to ask.

The fact was that Baker was the only person who ever rented a tent from the state university. No one else knew that it was available.

Most people would have qualms about it anyway. There may be no legal prohibition in the case of the university, but government employees and government property should never be used in partisan political campaigns. If the university were a civil-service agency subject to the Hatch Act, it would be flatly illegal and someone at UCA would be in deep trouble.

Baker should not boast of his moral conduct but instead apologize.