Monday, December 23, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Ignorance no excuse, Mark Darr must resign

You can say this, if nothing better, about Lt. Gov. Mark Darr: He has better political instincts or gets better advice than the chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, who after a year continues to try to cover up bungling in the university’s free-wheeling fund-raising division.

Laying out all the facts for everyone to see is always the best policy but one rarely followed in public or private life. When you do, the bleeding is painful but tends to end in short order.

So when a Democratic blogger dug into the records and reported that Darr had violated the law in converting public and campaign funds to his personal use, Darr rushed to the state Ethics Commission to report that he had made some “mistakes” on his campaign reports and that he had just discovered that he was ignorant of the law when he reimbursed himself for “expenses” in running around the state as the man waiting to succeed Gov. Beebe if he drops dead before he retires officially Jan. 15, 2015.

Everyone gives Darr some credit for the alacrity with which he confessed, but, alas, it has proved to be not enough. It was enough for the Republican Party, which has joined ranks behind him. The poor man made a bunch of mistakes, the state Republican chairman and Republican legislators said this week, but he did it out of ignorance and not with any intention to steal. His attorney, Dan Greenberg, the son of the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, explained that Darr had simply made “mistakes in disclosure” rather than doing anything really crooked and that he had apologized for them.

That was good enough for colleagues in the party and for the editors at the Democrat Gazette for a good while. None of them called for Darr to resign as they all had demanded when state Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro, a Democrat, confessed to converting campaign funds to his personal benefit or when state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, another Democrat, owned up to taking $6,000 from an investment adviser who had gotten investment business from the treasurer’s office. Both resigned; the Democratic Party had demanded it.

But the state legislative auditor concluded this month that Darr had illegally claimed reimbursement from the state treasury for travel expenses from his home in northwest Arkansas and elsewhere and the staff of the state Ethics Commission concluded that he had wrongfully converted a total of some $44,000 of public and campaign money to his personal use. The state Ethics Commission—half Democrats, half Republicans—has yet to weigh in on the findings. The commissioners hold the power to slap his wrists or punish him more severely.

The punishment should be the same as for Book-out and Shoffner. That was resignation—insisted upon by a united Republican Party and by the editorial page of the Democrat Gazette in both cases. Breaking months of silence on the Darr matter, the newspaper last week ruefully called upon Darr to resign. He said he has no intention of leaving the office. When liberal blogger Matt Campbell first reported Darr’s many reporting “mistakes,” Darr did quit the Republican race for Congress from the Fourth Congressional District but not his job.

Are Darr’s financial misdeeds so grievous that they require his removal from office unless he is actually convicted in a court of violations of the law? The precedents go both ways, but the recent precedents—the cases of Bookout and Shoffner—decisively dictate his resignation. Neither Shoffner nor Bookout has been convicted of anything.

But he ought to resign for a better reason than any legalism: ignorance. He and his defenders have pleaded it.

We have a lieutenant governor for one reason: to have someone in waiting who will step in as a statewide elected official in the rare emergency of a governor’s dying or leaving office short of an election. When voters created such an office some 85 years ago, they did to have someone in waiting. It was not a full-time job and paid only $2,500; to give the officeholder some menial duty the law empowered him to preside over the state Senate the few days a year it is in session. He has no power over legislation or anything else. He recognizes the senator who is to speak next and orders the clerk to call the roll when debate on a bill ends. That’s it. When the lieutenant governor doesn’t want to go to the Capitol, the president of the Senate stands in for him and the Senate happily does its work anyway.

Lt. Gov. Nathan Gordon, the war hero who held the job for two decades after World War II, had no staff, collected his $2,500 and nothing else and stayed away from the Capitol and from trying to meddle in the governor’s affairs. Until Darr, other lieutenant governors followed the example.

Though he has no duties other than sitting on the Senate dais, Darr has a $400,000 budget and pays four executive assistants $350,000 to send out press statements for him—one praised Exxon Mobil for its handling of the big Mayflower oil spill—and to keep up his political contacts around the state.

But if his real job is to be ready to step into the governor’s office in an emergency and run the state for a while, he needs to have a demonstrated competence in government and to be at least minimally knowledgeable about government service. He and his friends acknowledge that he doesn’t have that knowledge. He didn’t even know what the law required on a public official’s financial reporting and what the law required a lieutenant governor to do about his travels.

It’s time to quit.