Committee recommends suspension, demotion for senator for “frivolous and retaliatory” complaint

After three meetings, Senate Ethics Committee votes unanimously to sanction Clark and exonerate Flowers

By: - September 9, 2022 8:06 pm

The Arkansas Senate voted Sept. 27, 2022 to suspend Sen. Alan Clark for the remainder of the year because ethics charges he brought against another senator were “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory.” (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Senate)

State Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, faces several possible sanctions after the Senate Ethics Committee decided Friday that his complaint against Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, was “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory.”

The committee met Sept. 1, Thursday and Friday, and members heard testimony and debated the complaint behind closed doors for a total of about 16 hours.

Early Friday afternoon, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Senate demote Clark to the lowest level of seniority for the rest of the year and for the next two years, as well as to suspend him for the rest of 2022.

Clark filed the complaint Aug. 18 against Flowers for receiving nearly $3,000 in improper per diem and travel payments. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Aug. 26 that Flowers reimbursed the Senate for the entire amount earlier that month.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff

Clark was disciplined by the Senate in July over a per diem issue and publicly voiced frustration with the decision, both on social media and in news articles. The committee interpreted his statements as “intent to retaliate against the Senate.” 

He refused to retract his allegations twice at the committee’s request after receiving evidence that the complaint “did not have merit,” Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, said, reading from his motion to sanction Clark.

“The evidence demonstrates that Senator Clark singled out Senator Flowers for an ethics complaint, and his stated reason for filing the petition was untrue,” Wallace read.

The Senate is expected to meet Sept. 16 to vote on the committee’s recommendations, said Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville

The committee’s recommended consequences for Clark include:

  • Demotion to position 35 in seniority in the Senate for the rest of the 93rd General Assembly, which ends with the calendar year
  • A recommendation to maintain the demotion throughout the 94th General Assembly from the beginning of 2023 to the end of 2024
  • Suspension for the rest of the 93rd General Assembly, effective immediately upon the Senate’s vote.

Clark’s suspension would include the loss of access to the Senate and other legislative facilities and resources, including his Senate email account; the inability to participate in most Senate meetings or committee meetings; and no reimbursement for conference registration fees or Senate-related travel.

The committee also voted unanimously Friday to recommend no penalties against Flowers. Hours of debate resulted in agreement that Flowers did not violate the Senate rule pertaining to per diem and mileage reimbursement, according to the motion read aloud by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View. Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, seconded the motion.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View

This was the first public confirmation that Flowers was the target of Clark’s complaint.

Clark told reporters after the meeting that he believed the committee was “mistaken” to recommend consequences for him and none for Flowers. He said he will stand by his complaint “when the public learns all of the facts.”

He also criticized what he saw as a lack of transparency during the committee’s investigation.

“Everyone should look at the facts and draw their own conclusions,” Clark said.

Erroneous payments

Flowers attended Senate meetings in person during the first four days of the 2021 regular session and attended the rest of the session remotely, in compliance with rules in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was notified about the improper payments for her virtual attendance on Aug. 11 and sent a $2,714 check back to the Senate the same day, according to the committee’s report. The check covered 46 days of per diem at $59 per day. The reimbursement rate was actually $55 per day, meaning Flowers was misinformed and overpaid the Senate, the report states.

She sent the Senate another check for $217.60 on Aug. 22 to cover four days’ worth of leave from the Senate for which she was accidentally paid, the report states.

Senate Secretary Ann Cornwell and Senate Fiscal Officer Tamara Lewis both testified to the Ethics Committee that the payments to Flowers were a clerical mistake, according to the committee’s final report, which Hickey released to the Senate and to the public Friday afternoon.

In response to questions from senators, Clark told the committee during the Sept. 1 meeting he did not know that Flowers had reimbursed the Senate until Aug. 24, six days after he submitted the complaint, according to the report.

The committee asked Clark twice if this knowledge would lead him to withdraw the complaint, and he refused both times, the report states.

“Senator Clark’s investigation of the facts before filing his petition against Senator Flowers was reckless, with deliberate intent,” the committee wrote in its recommendation of sanctions.

Flowers is usually a member of the ethics panel but was replaced for the proceedings on Clark’s complaint by Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis. Ingram seconded Wallace’s motion on the recommended sanctions.

Senate rules allow for a party’s top senator to replace a member of their party on the committee if that member is making the complaint or is the subject of the complaint.

The committee is composed of five Republicans and three Democrats.

“Burn the house down”

Clark previously admitted to the Ethics Committee that he was not present at the Senate Boys State committee meeting June 3 due to illness and asked Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, to sign him in so he could be reimbursed. Clark would have collected $155 in public funds for mileage and per diem.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Ethics Committee’s recommendations in July to discipline both Clark and Johnson. Both were stripped of committee chairman and vice chairman posts, as well as their eligibility for per diem and mileage reimbursement for the rest of 2022. They were also formally reprimanded by the Senate. Future Senate presidents pro tempore are not allowed to consider either Clark or Johnson for appointment to serve on Boys State, Girls State or the Senate Ethics Committee.

Clark was previously chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vice chairman of the Legislative Council Review Subcommittee, co-chairman of the Legislative Council Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee, and chairman of the Child Maltreatment Investigations Oversight Committee.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale

Johnson was previously vice chairman of the Joint Energy Committee, the Joint Budget Committee Claims Subcommittee, and the Legislative Council Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee. He was also removed from the Ethics Committee and replaced by Wallace.

Clark told the Democrat-Gazette in a July 3 article that the ethics committee’s recommendations “shocked” him. He is running unopposed for reelection in November, and he said he might be “a little meaner” in his next term and “burn the house down” for Johnson, whom he believed was treated unfairly.

“We’ll talk about all the things that could be ethics charges, and some people will get real uncomfortable, but as for me the damage has been done,” he said in that article.

He also wrote a lengthy Facebook post Aug. 9 comparing himself to a “giant killer” and saying he should “look for the right moment to attack.”

“Expect people, especially in leadership, to be jealous,” Clark wrote. “Don’t forget to collect your earnings as agreed on in the contract.”

The committee cited both statements as examples of Clark’s intent to retaliate against the Senate for censuring him and Johnson. Clark told reporters Friday that he disagreed with this assessment.

“My social media account is open, so go look,” he said. “If you see anything there since the committee meeting in July where our punishments were handed out, please let me know.”

“Frivolous nature”

When asked for comment about the committee’s decisions, Flowers deferred to her written response she filed with the committee at the beginning of the investigation.

“It is notable that no such complaint with allegations of ethical violations has been filed against the other Senate member paid as a result of administrative error under the same circumstances for which I am accused,” Flowers wrote on Aug. 22, referring to Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado.

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado

Garner was also incorrectly paid for meetings he attended via videoconference, and he also agreed to reimburse the Senate for the payments. Hickey told the Democrat-Gazette he considered the payments to Flowers and Garner a “clerical” error.

Clark told reporters he was not aware when he filed the complaint that Garner had also been erroneously paid.

The Democrat-Gazette reported that Garner was likely paid much less than Flowers was. Clark said he would have had to file complaints against several other senators if he had filed one against Garner, so he filed only the one against Flowers because he thought she made the “most egregious” violation.

Hickey testified to the committee that Clark said he had drafted additional ethics complaints against 30 to 32 other senators, almost the entire chamber, according to the report.

This showed the committee “the frivolous nature of this petition” against Flowers because such a volume of complaints would have put a “huge burden” on the committee and staff, the report states.

“Indeed, the only purpose to the filing of this petition, and any that he has plans to file going forward, seems to be to fulfill his July 3 promise to ‘burn the house down,’” the report states.

Clark also said Friday that he considers Flowers a friend and does not have anything personal against her. The two senators clashed publicly in March 2019 when the Senate Judiciary Committee was considering a bill to eliminate the “duty to retreat” from Arkansas’ self-defense laws.

Flowers, the only Black member of the committee, raised her voice to speak against the bill, saying she feared for her son’s life if the “stand your ground” bill became law and was used by armed vigilantes.

Clark, the committee chairman, told Flowers to stop.

“What are you going to do, shoot me?” Flowers responded.

A video of the interaction went viral and attracted national attention.

Flowers then walked out of the committee meeting and returned later to vote. The committee voted 4-3 against the bill, but a similar law was enacted last year.

Clark said Friday that he got “raked over the coals” when the video went viral because he was trying to tell Flowers to stop using profanity.

When asked about his next steps, he said he is used to “standing alone” in the Senate.

“But hopefully I won’t stand alone, and hopefully when the information is made public, people will be able to see past personalities and see what the truth is,” he said.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.