Tuesday, May 21, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Shoffner steps down

This is not a good time to be a Democrat in Arkansas. The party, which is facing extinction as the state moves further to the right, has almost no chance of winning statewide offices next year. The weekend arrest of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, a Democrat, on bribery charges will only worsen the party’s troubles. Her resignation Tuesday afternoon will hardly limit the damage as Republicans are certain to use her mug in political commercials next year to highlight alleged corruption in the Democratic Party.

Shoffner is facing up to 20 years in prison after she was caught taking bribes from a securities dealer who was doing business with her office. Calls for her resignation came within hours of her arrest, and not only from Republicans, such as Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) and others, but also from top Democrats, including Gov. Mike Beebe and party chairman and Jacksonville native Will Bond.

Bond, who has struggled to revive the party since the assassination of chairman Bill Gwatney, also of Jacksonville, despairs over the party’s chances in the upcoming elections and Monday called for Shoffner’s resignation.

“We have reviewed the criminal complaint just released regarding the alleged acts of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, and we are shocked and disturbed by the allegations,” Bond said. “While Treasurer Shoffner has the right to be presumed innocent, Arkansas taxpayers have the right to have confidence that their money is being invested and managed properly. In order to restore public trust and to allow the treasurer’s office to operate its duties, we ask treasurer Shoffner to resign immediately.”

The Arkansas Times, which broke the story more than a year ago, has identified the bond dealer as Steele Stephens of St. Bernard Financial in Russellville. Suspicions arose when this small securities dealer managed to get most of the treasurer’s bond business. A legislative audit committee and the FBI also became curious. Before long, Stephens agreed to cooperate with the FBI and was wired when he delivered $6,000 in a pie filled with $100 bills to Shoffner’s home in Newport on Saturday.

The scandal could be the final blow to the state Democratic Party, which next year will probably lose the few constitutional offices it has managed to hold on to during a rising Republican tide. Shoffner could cost the Democrats the governorship and the Democratic Senate seat held by Mark Pryor.

Shofner has hired Chuck Banks, a first-class criminal lawyer, who kept Lu Hardin out of prison after he was caught stealing from the University of Central Arkansas. He claimed he stole from the university to cover gambling debts. Shoffner, who is 68, will probably blame her erratic behavior on advanced age and maybe even early dementia.

Whatever the outcome of this shocking case, it does not bode well for the Democrats, who are an endangered species. Back in the days when the Democrats ruled one-party Arkansas, public officials probably acted no differently from Shoffner. A new era is on the horizon. Too bad the state treasurer couldn’t see the change coming.