The Arkansas Ethics Commission announced a much-anticipated $8,000 penalty on Friday against state Sen. Paul Bookout, based on its investigation of his campaign finances.
The fine — the biggest ever assessed by the commission — wasn’t as shocking as the glaringly personal nature in which the Jonesboro senator spent thousands of dollars in campaign funds.
His case marks the third time in a year Arkansas Democrats in elective offices have been exposed for ethical lapses. In the two other cases, the officeholders resigned amid scandals with criminal consequences.
Former state Rep. Hudson Hallum of Marion resigned his legislative seat last September after pleading guilty to a federal vote fraud charge. He was sentenced in June to one year of home detention and fined $20,000 for an absentee ballot fraud scheme in which he traded votes for chicken dinners and cheap vodka.
Former State Treasurer Martha Shoffner left office in May, days after her arrest by the FBI on public corruption charges. She was later indicted on 14 federal bribery and extortion counts, accused of taking $36,000 in cash kickbacks delivered in pie boxes in exchange for directing state bond business to a broker.
Bookout’s problems began when conservative activist Bob Hester of Jonesboro filed an ethics complaint last spring based on the lack of disclosures in Bookout’s 2012 campaign financial reports. While Bookout listed broad categories for the expenses of his unopposed re-election bid, such as $30,000 for "entertainment," he did not disclose the details of roughly $50,000 in expenditures. Arkansas law requires itemization of all single expenditures made which exceed $100, including the amount of the expenditure, the name and address of any person, including the candidate, to whom the expenditure was made and the date the expenditure was made.
Bookout seemed uncooperative when it came to disclosing details. He showed up for the initial hearing before the Ethics Commission with his lawyer, fellow Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, but without records for the expenses. He instead offered to pay back the money, apparently hoping the whole thing would go away.
But it did not. Eventually the commission obtained the details. The panel unanimously declared that Bookout had 97 expenditures he should have disclosed. Expenditures included personal extravagances — more than $8,000 for a home entertainment system, more than $5,000 for women’s clothing and more than $1,000 for golf items from a local pro shop.
He also transferred over $18,000 in cash to his own bank account.
Amended reports required by the commission also showed payments to several liquor stores, restaurants, hotels, sporting goods stores and department stores, not for items considered necessities of life but rather for items most would consider items for living high on the hog.
An editorial in the Jonesboro Sun summed it up well, saying, "Taking campaign money for personal use equates to greed. Not dealing with it directly with constituents is arrogance."
Greed and arrogance do not have a partisan home. We see examples on both sides of the aisle, but the problem for Arkansas Democrats is that this is the third high-profile failing in a 12-month span.
"This represents a very serious breach of the public’s trust," said David Ray, spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas. "It is sad that this type of behavior is all too common among Arkansas Democrats, who have controlled the state for the last 130 years. We hope that our state’s leaders and the justice system will hold Sen. Bookout accountable, just as they have in the cases of Martha Shoffner and Hudson Hallum."
While you would think this series of failures would cause Democrats to distance themselves from Bookout, a party spokesman instead defended him.
"Senator Bookout has a strong record of service in the Senate. It is my understanding he is reimbursing campaign donors over these issues with his campaign report. He can put this behind him and continue his service to the people of his community," said Candace Martin, communications director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
Hallum, Shoffner and now Bookout – whether they like it or not, the three names are a problem for Arkansas Democrats.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.