Tuesday, May 31, 2016

EDITORIAL >> How emails shifted funds

Former Rep. Mike Wilson (D-Jacksonville) has uncovered some incriminating emails from area legislators in his lawsuit against so-called General Improvement Funds that lawmakers funnel to their communities through local agencies. He says they’re laundering money to circumvent the state Constitution.

Wilson has asked Circuit Judge Chris Piazza for a summary judgment that would prohibit legislators from funding projects to their districts. He says lawmakers’ emails to Central Arkansas Planning and Development District directing funds to their special projects prove they’re violating the law against distributing state money to strictly local projects.

Since Wilson filed his suit, the CAPDD has stopped handing out money pending the outcome of the suit. He wants the money returned to the state.

Wilson, an attorney, won a similar suit in 2005 and was upheld by the state Supreme Court, and now he says legislators are using CAPDD and other local agencies, which approve the grant requests often without discussion.

“CAPDD board has not denied any application presented it in 2015,” Wilson’s motion states. “Of 680 grants approved by legislators and made through CAPDD since 2007, maybe 10 have been denied for reasons unknown.”

According to our senior writer John Hofheimer, Wilson’s motion for a summary judgment includes examples of emails between CAPPD employees and legislators in which legislators are asked for approval to fund certain projects.

“How much money do I have left,” Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) asked. “Please see attached,” replied an employee. “$91K.” A nice piece of taxpayers’ money.

Rep. Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) wrote, “If it is not too late, can you add me $2,000 for the exceptional school and $2000 for CASA?” No problem.

Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) ordered a CAPDD employee, “Give them $5,000,” then, “Fund Austin Police dept. $3000. Options Pregnancy $2000, Cabot Chamber $2000, Safe Haven $2000 and CASA $2000.” Sure thing.

Wilson cites others: Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), $9,000 for food at Air Force anniversary gala and $6,720 for fence and gate; Farrer, Rosebud Future Farmers of America pole barn, $5,000; Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), Boys Club plumbing, $26,000 and purchase airfare, $3,000; Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville), two bicycles for injured vets, $2,000; Rep. Tim Lemons (R-Cabot) $5,000 for community center ice maker, and Rep. Karoline Brown (R-Sherwood) $10,000 for police body cameras.

They insist the practice is above board and resent Wilson’s lawsuits to end local funding and return the money to the state.

Among Wilson’s other complaints, the CAPDD board does not adopt a budget in advance of GIF expenditures. As Hofheimer explained it, the funds are tracked internally by CAPDD employees by each legislator’s district. “No separate audit of GIF funds is performed to verify or confirm whether the GIF funds are actually spent by the applicant as proposed or represented in their applications.”

To support his contention that grants are “utilized in purely local or special ‘projects’ in the individual legislators’ home districts cannot seriously be denied” and have little or no economic development effect at all.

Wilson’s attorney, John Ogles of Jacksonville, called running the money through the planning and development districts “a work-around.”

“I think we caught them,” he added. “People pay taxes and deserve better accountability. Otherwise, let’s do it for everybody.”

The current “workaround” authorizes each state representative to spend $70,000 and each state senator $285,000, which Wilson says amounts to pork barrel politics with no oversight, no stated purpose and no matching funds.

Back in 2005, according to Wilson’s suit, portions of the General Improvement Funds were designated by legislators in hundreds of appropriation acts for particular local “projects” in their districts.

When Circuit Judge Willard Proctor ruled in Wilson’s favor that the practice violated Amendment 14 as “local and special acts and that they failed to state a distinct purpose.” The state Supreme Court upheld that ruling, and the practice was stopped. That’s when legislators devised the scheme to pass the money through local agencies, prompting Wilson to sue again. Should Judge Piazza rule against the legislators, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

The practice of handing out millions to local recipients, however worthy, dates back to the Huckabee administration and will probably have run its course if Wilson wins this latest round.