Arkansas Senate delays decision on possible sanctions for senator’s complaint

Clark brought new witnesses and evidence in an attempt to dispute the Senate Ethics Committee’s claims of retaliatory intent

By: - September 16, 2022 9:37 pm

The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday 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)

The Arkansas Senate did not reach a decision Friday about whether to censure Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) after he tried to present a case to his colleagues that the ethics complaint he filed against another senator was not “frivolous and retaliatory,” as the Senate Ethics Committee found last week.

Senators did, however, vote unanimously to absolve Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) of the ethics charges brought against her by Clark.

Clark faces the possibility of demotion to the lowest level of seniority for the rest of the year and for the next two years, as well as suspension for the rest of 2022. The Ethics Committee recommended these consequences Sept. 9 after three meetings and a total of about 16 hours hearing testimony and debate on Clark’s complaint against Flowers.

Flowers erroneously received nearly $3,000 in per diem and travel payments for attending legislative sessions via Zoom in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Flowers reimbursed the Senate.

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 interviews. The Ethics Committee interpreted his statements as “intent to retaliate against the Senate.”

He filed a complaint against Flowers on Aug. 18 for the improper payments, but the committee found that the complaint “did not have merit” and the payments were a “clerical error,” according to the committee’s Sept. 9 report.

Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), the Ethics Committee chairman, told the Senate on Friday that Flowers responded in a “reasonable, responsible and sufficient manner” when legislative staff notified her about the improper payments.

“The senators and staff were working in unprecedented circumstances, conducting a legislative session during a pandemic, [and] clerical errors regrettably but understandably occurred,” Hammer said.

The Senate voted 29-0, with one abstention, to accept the committee’s findings that Flowers did not violate Senate rules.

Five senators were not present, and Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) abstained from both votes. Garner was also incorrectly paid for meetings he attended via videoconference, and he also agreed to reimburse the Senate for the payments.

When asked by Hammer, Flowers did not have anything to say to the Senate about Clark’s complaint or the committee’s findings.

Senators then spent the next two and a half hours debating whether to accept new witnesses and evidence from Clark as he asserted that his complaint was not “frivolous and retaliatory.” He claimed the committee did not review all the relevant evidence or hear his case thoroughly enough.

Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark) asked Clark if he “ever had an opportunity before the committee to present any type of defense” against its claim about his motives for filing the complaint. Clark said he did not.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) reminded the Senate that the committee’s assessment of Clark’s complaint was not a formal charge or allegation.

“A huge portion of what we are about to discuss was thoroughly investigated and carefully considered in the Ethics Committee proceedings,” said Tucker, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

He added that Clark was present for the committee’s proceedings, with the exception of its closed-door deliberations, and had the opportunity to answer several questions from members.

After much debate, the Senate voted 18-12 to allow Hammer to testify as one of Clark’s witnesses.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe), who voted against it, said he thought allowing Hammer to testify for Clark would set the wrong precedent.

“I’m not an attorney, but I don’t think the defendants typically call the prosecutors to the table and start asking them questions,” Dismang said.

Hammer told the Senate he was willing to testify to make sure there was “no doubt in anybody’s mind” about the facts of the matter before voting on the potential sanctions.

Clark also asked Steve Cook, the Senate’s attorney, to be a witness. The Senate allowed this with a voice vote that had no audible dissenters.

Clark brought attorneys Glen Hoggard and Clint Lancaster Friday as his legal representatives.

The Senate voted down Clark’s motion to allow Lancaster to tell the chamber what “frivolous” means in a legal context.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) said he was not sure how the Senate could excuse Lancaster from his role as Clark’s counsel, since Senate rules prohibit senators’ attorneys from addressing the chamber.

Clark presented a series of documents that the Senate voted to accept as new evidence:

  • A timeline of the past several weeks with the dates not filled in. Clark said he would fill them in during the Senate meeting and refute the claim that his complaint had no merit
  • An email from Senate Fiscal Officer Tamara Lewis with an attached spreadsheet of his 2021 per diem expenses, meant to prove that his complaint was not frivolous
  • An email from Hickey at 5:52 p.m. Monday giving Clark a deadline of noon on Wednesday to gather potential evidence and witnesses. Clark said it was not enough time to prepare
  • A Facebook post Clark wrote on July 27 intended to refute the Ethics Committee’s statement that he intended to retaliate against the Senate for censuring him earlier that month

Dismang said he believed Clark needed more time to prepare his case and made a motion for the Senate to adjourn for the day.

Garner disagreed, saying Clark was prepared enough and the Senate should not “kick the can down the road.”

“If you want this man to go back home and then come up here and deal with this again, I got to say, I don’t think y’all have been in trouble enough and know what it’s like to have that day in court and then actually have something done,” Garner said.

Clark said he appreciated Dismang’s intentions but wanted “to get this over with.”

Ballinger made a motion to bring Clark’s case back to the Ethics Committee, but he withdrew the motion after Clark said he did not want this.

The Senate voted 20-9 in favor of Dismang’s motion to adjourn until Hickey, who voted present, calls another meeting to resume the discussion and vote on the ethics committee’s recommendations.

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.

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, who had traveled to Little Rock, 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 leadership posts as well as their eligibility for per diem and mileage reimbursement for 2022.

Johnson was also removed from the Ethics Committee and replaced by Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville).

On Friday, Johnson voted in favor of exonerating Flowers and against putting off the decision about Clark’s potential sanctions.

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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. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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