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Darr under growing pressure to step down

Posted: January 4, 2014 - 2:32pm

LITTLE ROCK — Despite a growing number of public calls for his resignation, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr has so far given no indication that he intends to leave office before his current term ends in January 2015.

After Darr, a Republican, reached a settlement last week with the state Ethics Commission that calls for him to pay $11,000 in fines for 11 violations of state campaign finance and ethics laws, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said he should resign. Soon after, all five Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation also called on Darr to step down, as did the chairman of the state Democratic Party and several Republican and Democratic candidates for office.

The leader of the House Democratic Caucus said that if Darr has not resigned by the start of the fiscal session next month, the caucus will seek a House vote to impeach him.

If Darr does resign, a special election could be held to fill the vacancy, according to Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample.

“The preliminary research that we’ve done says that the governor is required to call a special (election), so we’re continuing to study that in the event that we have a resignation,” DeCample said.

But with the office up for election in November anyway, a special election may be seen as unnecessary. DeCample noted that after Win Rockefeller died in office in July 2006, the state Democratic and Republican parties agreed not to ask for a special election and the office was allowed to remain vacant until the general election four months later, when Bill Halter won the seat.

Currently seeking the office of lieutenant governor are Republican state Reps. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville and Andy Mayberry of Hensley, and former state Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter, a Democrat. Darr, who dropped out of the 4th District congressional race in August, has not said whether he will seek re-election.

Arkansas does not have a process for voters to recall a constitutional officer, so if Darr refuses to step down, impeachment would be the only option for his removal. If the House were to vote for impeachment, the Senate would conduct a trial. A two-thirds vote in the Republican-controlled Senate would be needed for a conviction and removal from office.

“I’m personally not in favor of that,” Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said last week of the possibility of impeaching Darr. “I haven’t heard anything that makes me think he needs to be impeached.”

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said though a House spokeswoman last week that he would be willing to begin the impeachment process if at least 51 of the 100 House members indicate they want him to act. The current makeup of the House is 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Green Party member.

The Ethics Commission said it found evidence that Darr used campaign money to make about $31,500 in personal purchases, received about $3,500 in improper travel reimbursements, accepted $6,000 in campaign contributions that exceeded the individual limit, accepted contributions after the amount needed to retire his debt had been raised, made personal expenditures with campaign funds that exceeded the loans he made to his campaign and submitted campaign finance reports that omitted required information.

A legislative audit that took a more in-depth look at Darr’s travel reimbursements found that he received more than $9,000 in improper reimbursements.

Darr has said the violations were the result of inadequate record-keeping and misinterpretations of state laws. He has said he mistakenly believed that because he had loaned money to his 2010 campaign, he could repay the loans by using campaign money for personal expenditures.

The state Ethics Commission offers several training sessions on campaign finance laws during every election cycle. Ethics Commission Executive Director Graham Sloan said last week that to his knowledge Darr, a former pizza business owner who had no political experience when he ran for office in 2010, has never attended any of those sessions.

Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley has said he may seek funding for a grand jury to investigate complaints about Darr and others.

Several of those calling for Darr’s resignation have noted that Paul Bookout, a Democrat from Jonesboro, resigned from the state Senate in August after the Ethics Commission gave him a smaller fine, $8,000, for violations that included using campaign contributions for personal expenditures. A special prosecutor is reviewing Bookout’s case.

The state Democratic Party has sought to make political hay out of Darr’s case by criticizing state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb and Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson for not taking a stronger stance against Darr. Webb and Hutchinson have said Darr should resign if he is criminally charged.

“According to Asa Hutchinson, all’s fair as long as you manage to avoid criminal charges, despite Mark Darr’s own admission of illegally spending campaign and taxpayer dollars. Is this the standard to which a Hutchinson administration would hold itself?” the Democratic Party said in a news release last week.

Hutchinson said it was his understanding that the Pulaski County prosecutor was reviewing the case to determine whether criminal charges are warranted and that “until then, we should let the process work and expect the decision of the Ethics Commission in terms of fine and amended reports to be fulfilled.”

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