LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The worst-kept secret at Arkansas’ Capitol over the past several months is the waiting game lawmakers, lobbyists and others play as they eye federal probes into local project money that have already targeted two former legislators.
A search warrant issued to another top GOP senator, a not-so-subtle request from House Democrats for clarification on impeachment rules and a declaration from Senate Republicans that they want any indicted lawmaker to be stripped of leadership positions are an indication another shoe could drop.
Senate Republicans put out a carefully worded statement after federal court documents revealed a search warrant seeking material from Sen. Jake Files involves $46,500 in surplus money for work at a Fort Smith sports complex. Files, who chairs the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, has not been charged with a crime and says he is cooperating with law enforcement.
Without mentioning Files by name, the caucus issued a late-night statement declaring it would request that any member indicted or charged with a felony related to the public trust give up their committee assignments or leadership assignments.
“We want to emphasize that this is not to presume guilt or in any way influence the administration of justice, but is to ensure that legislative business can continue without distraction,” the caucus said in a statement. “We believe that this formal request will send a clear message regarding future action by the Arkansas State Senate as a whole.”
The statement came a week after the top Democrat in the House, invoking Files’ name, asked the speaker for clarification on the impeachment process, referring to it as “uncharted territory.”
“Many of our colleagues have begun raising questions about the rules for, and process of, moving forward with impeachment proceedings, should it become necessary,” House Minority Leader David Whitaker wrote in the letter to Republican House Speaker Jeremy Gillam. Whitaker later said he wasn’t calling for impeachment, and Gillam said he didn’t see the need for clarifying rules that are readily available to members.
The moves follow a separate probe into grants of surplus state money to a private Christian college in northwest Arkansas. Former state Sen. Jon Woods, the president of Ecclesia College and a consultant have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges after prosecutors said they participated in a scheme where Woods allegedly directed money to the college in return for kickbacks. Former Republican state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty in January to one count of fraud related to the case.
Woods, Ecclesia President Oren Paris III and consultant Randell Shelton have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go on trial in December.
Their trial nears as the state’s highest court weighs whether the system of grants the Legislature used to fund Ecclesia and other projects around the state violates the constitution’s ban on strictly local legislation and its requirement that budget bills include a distinctly stated purpose.
Mike Wilson, the former lawmaker whose lawsuit led the court to strike down the Legislature’s past practice of funding local projects, has argued the new system is akin to money laundering with legislators still controlling where the money goes. The state has argued the money serves a statewide need and isn’t considered local legislation since the grants are distributed equally within the state. Justices sharply questioned lawyers on both sides about the issue during more than an hour and a half of oral arguments, but didn’t indicate when they would issue a ruling.
The looming opinion from the court just adds to the waiting game.