LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday said the flap over Secretary of State Mark Martin’s hiring of outside counsel without prior approval has made all of the state’s constitutional officers look bad and compared it to former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner’s legal troubles.
Martin called Beebe’s comments "slanderous rhetoric."
"It’s like the Shoffner thing," Beebe told reporters. "Any time you’ve got a statewide constitutional officer that does something like this, it really causes all of us to look like we’ve got problems."
A Pulaski County circuit judge ruled Monday that Martin had not followed state law when he hired, without the approval of the governor or attorney general, two outside lawyers to defend him in a freedom of information lawsuit filed by liberal blogger Matt Campbell. The judge removed the lawyers from the case in a ruling that Martin said he would appeal.
The state Democratic Party issued a statement Monday criticizing Martin for having routinely used taxpayer dollars to hire outside counsel without proper approval, calling it an "indictable offense" that should be referred to a prosecutor.
Violating the law on hiring outside counsel can be punished with a fine of $200 to $2,000 and removal from office upon conviction.
Shoffner is scheduled to stand trial in federal court on March 3 on six counts of extortion, one count of attempted extortion and seven counts of accepting a bribe as an agent of state government. She is accused of accepting $36,000 in bribes to steer most of the state’s bond business to one broker.
Beebe said Tuesday, "The trust of the people in their elected officials is something that you have to constantly try to promote. And you know, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you see things like what happened to our treasurer and now what’s happening here with the secretary of state that impacts that trust."
Asked if he believed Martin should face prosecution, Beebe said he would defer on that point to the proper authorities.
Martin responded in a statement, "Given that the governor is an attorney he should know better, and we are disappointed in his partisan leap to judgment that is beneath the dignity of the office of governor. The comparison Gov. Beebe made with our office and the alleged bribery of the former state treasurer is slanderous rhetoric, and Arkansans deserve better."
Martin said that as Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox noted in court Monday, the issue had not come up in an Arkansas court before.
Alex Reed, a spokesman for Martin, said McDaniel did not object the first time Martin hired outside counsel. He also said that in 2011 McDaniel spokesman Aaron Sadler stated publicly that it was not necessary to obtain the attorney general’s permission to hire outside counsel unless approval was specifically required in an agency appropriation bill.
"Since then, we have followed that generally understood interpretation of the law," Reed said. "There is no secret about what we have done. We have been open and transparent as in (a 2012 lawsuit over redistricting). At one time we asked the A.G. to represent us. He accepted then withdrew."
Sadler said Tuesday the attorney general’s office did not wish to comment.
The Democratic Party also said Monday that Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson should return payment he received when he represented Martin in the redistricting case.
Asked Tuesday if he agreed, Beebe said, "I doubt if an illegal exaction lawsuit would actually be addressed against Mr. Hutchinson. I think it would be addressed against the secretary of state’s office and the state of Arkansas, and that the money would come from taxpayer funds, so you’d end up paying twice."
Beebe and McDaniel also were defendants in the redistricting lawsuit and presented a different defense from Martin, who maintained that he had no involvement in the redistricting plan that Beebe and McDaniel approved. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of the board and upheld the plan.
Beebe said Tuesday he did not voice any concerns at the time about Martin’s hiring of Hutchinson because "he had a different position than we did, so it was fair to assume that he felt like there would have been a conflict of interest for the same lawyer and consequently went out and got his own lawyer, but I didn’t think much about whether he’d talked to the A.G. about it at the time."
Meanwhile, two of Martin’s staff attorneys, Martha Adcock and A.J. Kelly, entered appearances Tuesday in Pulaski County Circuit Court as replacements for the outside lawyers who were removed in the lawsuit filed by Campbell. The lawsuit accuses Martin of failing to adequately respond to a request for public records under the state Freedom of Information Act.