LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said Friday he would leave office Feb. 1, giving in to pressure from Democrats and fellow Republicans who said his impeachment was inevitable over ethics violations tied to his campaign and office spending.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Republican members of the state's congressional delegation had begun calling for Darr to resign on Dec. 31, a day after he agreed to pay $11,000 fines imposed by the state Ethics Commission for 11 separate violations, including making personal use of more than $30,000 of his campaign funds. Darr insisted that those violations, as well as improper spending a separate agency found on his state credit card, were unintentional, and had vowed to stay in office.
In a statement released by his office Friday evening, Darr said, "Politics can be a toxic business. I will no longer subject my family to its hard lessons." He had submitted his resignation to House Speaker Davy Carter and Senate President Michael Lamoureux.
Republican leaders in the Legislature expressed relief at Darr's decision. His refusal to leave office had threatened to overshadow GOP efforts in November to build on recent electoral gains, including the party's takeover of the state Legislature in the 2012 election.
"Everyone recognized (impeachment) would be a difficult thing to do and embarrassing for the state," said House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot. "Nobody wanted to do that, but I think people were prepared to do that. To that end, I think this is the best ending that was possible in this circumstance."
Just three days before Darr announced his resignation, the former pizza shop owner had insisted there was no outcry for him to leave.
"It would be an immediate fix to tuck tail and run but I would regret it for years to come," Darr said Tuesday.
In addition to paying the Ethics Commission fines, Darr had promised to reimburse the state for $3,500 in improper spending that the Office of Legislative Audit had found.
With Darr refusing to leave, legislative leaders had begun researching impeachment, a process Arkansas lawmakers haven't attempted since 1871. House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said Darr's impeachment was inevitable if the lieutenant governor didn't quit.
Lamoureux, R-Russellville, called Darr's resignation sad but said he believed the lieutenant governor made the right decision.
"He spared a lot of people time and expense and probably some partisan fighting," Lamoureux said.
Darr was elected in 2010 as part of a Republican sweep into state and congressional offices. In 2013, he announced a run for Congress, but he dropped out of the race in August amid questions about his spending.
The lieutenant governor's job is a mostly ceremonial position whose duties include presiding over the state Senate and casting the rare tie-breaking vote in the 35-member chamber. He's paid nearly $42,000 a year.
Darr tangled with Beebe last year when Darr signed into law a bill that kept secret the list of residents with concealed weapons permits. Beebe had left the state, which enabled Darr to act.
Beebe had planned to let the bill become law without his signature, but Darr said his passion for the Second Amendment prompted him to sign it.
"I always thought we had a pretty decent relationship," Beebe said at the time. "Obviously, I'll be much more careful. You can't turn your back now."
It was unclear whether a special election would be held to fill Darr's vacancy. A spokesman for Beebe said the governor was researching his options and obligations. State law says an election must be held within 150 days of a vacancy being declared.
Darr on Tuesday had cited the cost of a special election as a reason for staying. Westerman said lawmakers are considering changing the law during next month's legislative session to avoid having a special election.
The Ethics Commission found that Darr violated portions of the Arkansas code 11 times. The panel said it determined that he had made personal use of $31,572.74 of his campaign funds, received excess contributions to retire his campaign debt, didn't maintain adequate records, failed to itemize loan repayments and accepted improper reimbursement for travel expenses.
Darr's ethics case is similar to one earlier this year involving former Democratic state Sen. Paul Bookout. In that case, Bookout resigned without public pressure from Beebe.
Darr's refusal to leave office had undermined Republican efforts to tie Democrats to recent scandals, including Bookout and former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner's resignation over charges she accepted $36,000 from a broker who did business with the state. Shoffner, who faces trial in March, acknowledged taking the money and quit her post but said the money didn't influence her decision to steer state investments to the broker.