Tuesday, April 19, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Bad start for Martin

When two of your top aides resign, each accompanied by a whiff of scandal, it has not been a good week for a public official. That happened last week to Secretary of State Mark Martin, who already had more than his share of trouble since taking office three months ago. 

First, Princella Smith, his director of education (we didn’t know the secretary of state had, or needed, a director of education), resigned after she was arrested at Wynne, her home, for driving without a vehicle license or insurance and driving with a suspended driver’s license. Smith, who also has a political consulting firm and teaches at a community college at Wynne, resigned because she said she had cast Martin’s office in a negative light. It was a commendable, thoughtful thing to do. We have no idea whether Martin suggested it. Anyway, it ought to cast no reflections on Martin that an aide was a driving scofflaw. 

But the resignation of Teresa Belew, Martin’s executive assistant, is another matter. She resigned because she said she was being directed to violate the law by skirting a request for documents that are supposed to be available under the Freedom of Information Act. Her letter of resignation said Alice Stewart, Martin’s deputy and a former aide to Mike Huckabee, told her that a controversial email would be shredded rather than turned over to Max Brantley, a newspaper editor who had requested the documents. Another top aide told her not to shred the document but that the material would not be given to Brantley until the legislature had approved the office’s budgets. The law says public documents must be turned over in a timely manner. 

Martin, Stewart and other top aides denied to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday that they wanted to bypass the law in any way and they said Ms. Belew just misunderstood everyone. For her part, Belew refused to talk to the media. She said her letter of resignation and an email to Martin’s top deputy, Doug Matayo, were all that she ever intended to say about the matter. The email to Matayo expressed concerns “about personnel, FOIA, Mark’s stress level and what I perceived to be an environment of disrespect, fear and mistrust.” 

Belew formerly was executive director of the Arkansas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Here is the irony. The documents in question related to a contract that Martin negotiated in his first days in office with friends at John Brown University at Siloam Springs to throw a retreat for him and his top staff at Greystone Estate at Rogers and teach them how to operate the secretary of state’s office in an ethical manner. The group at the university is called the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics. The state is paying $54,000 for the retreat and training. Brantley had heard about the contract and sought details, including correspondence about it inside the secretary of state’s office. Belew seemed to think one piece of correspondence would be controversial and asked about it, which caused the brouhaha. 

We have to presume that the consultants had not reached the point in the training where they explain the ethical handling of requests to follow the freedom of information law. If they missed the point, Teresa Belew has made it quite effectively.