Thursday, June 2, 2016

Hutchinson taps tax money for office, Mansion improvements; also relies on kindness of political friends

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 4:57 AM

click to enlarge IMPROVED SURROUNDINGS: Gov. Asa Hutchinson spent $237,000 in tax money to redecorate and upgrade equipment when he took over his governor. He also got more than $50,000 in new furniture — including his desk and chair — thanks to major contributions to the - republican Party around the time of his inauguration.
  • IMPROVED SURROUNDINGS: Gov. Asa Hutchinson spent $237,000 in tax money to redecorate and upgrade equipment when he took over his governor. He also got more than $50,000 in new furniture — including his desk and chair — thanks to major contributions to the republican Party around the time of his inauguration.

We've been dickering with Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office on disclosure of expenditures on his office and the Governor's Mansion and can report progress after a week or so of back and forth, if not full transparency.

Some of this was set in motion by KATV's report on Treasurer Dennis Milligan's expenditure of some $50,000 of tax money on new office furniture. Gov. Hutchinson was quoted briefly in the piece as indicating he had not relied on tax money. He wasn't interviewed in depth and if he referred only to furniture, he was mostly correct.

But he did spend tax money on the office. And political contributions, including significant sums from major corporate donors, covered the rest.

As other governors have done, Hutchinson charged taxpayers for redecoration, repair and equipment purchases. It took an FOI request — only partially filled — before I could get a response of any sort from Hutchinson's press office. But in time, some records were produced.

They showed: $1,359 for what appears to be cabinet work; $441 for wooden blinds; $495 for replacement of the governor's toilet; $7,861 for new vinyl wall covering; invoices to Shayla Copas Interiors of $12,248 for draperies, $3,365 for wall covering, $525 to upholster a bathroom bench, and $4,047 for draperies; $300 for a wall plaque; $7,049 for new camera equipment; $2,135 for technical equipment; $163 for a lectern; $542 for a conference table; $177 to repair an ice machine; purchases of computer equipment from Dell for $59,841, $10,317, $35,781, $4,404, $4,519 and $1,027 (a spokesman explained that some computer equipment could be held over from the Beebe administration, but some had to be replaced); $148 for software; computer networking invoices for $3,755, $15,121, $14,979, $1,892, $1,380 and $6,264; and computer related purchases from Apple for $19,718, $4,924, $1,797 and $5,541. Altogether, that's more than $235,000. In anticipation of my summary, the Hutchinson staff put together a tally that indicated Mike Beebe had spent $127,200 on remodeling and renovation of the Capitol office when he took office in 2007. That tally didn't include equipment purchases, if any. There had to be some. Remember Mike Huckabee's destruction of computer hard drives.

This spending doesn't account for all of the new look in the office. There's also new furniture. I was told originally this was financed by a surplus from money raised for the governor's inaugural. State law says a governor may raise money for "official swearing-in and inaugural events." The governor may also accept gifts on behalf of the state, subject to reporting. Hutchinson has reported no furniture gifts. I never got a solid legal explanation of how inaugural expenses could be converted into office furniture

To the extent there's been reporting of money raised and spent on Hutchinson's inaugural, there are only quarterly reports of the Republican Party. The first two reports filed in 2015 show some major contributions in December 2014 and January likely related to January inaugural expenses. It also reports expenditures that are likely inaugural expenses — a big bill at the Marriott Hotel where the major social event was held and more than $92,000 in payments to Tipton and Hurst, the flower and decor shop whose co-owner Stacy Hurst, now the Heritage director, chaired the inauguration festivities.

Hurst was also an ex-officio member of the Governor's Mansion Commission and in that position has been a defender of the governor's recent legal takeover of the commission, on which Hurst is now a voting member. She has also done business with the Governor's Mansion while a commissioner. I'm awaiting a response from the governor on whether that practice will continue, but have been told that Hurst has reimbursed the Mansion for roughly $2,000 billed by Tipton and Hurst. Also a recipient of payments during the inaugural time frame was interior designer Shayla Copas, who got some $70,000 in payments from the Republican Party during inaugural time on top of the payments shown on office work. She, too, was a member of the Governor's Mansion Commission.

There's no specific accounting and no line items for inaugural spending in the Republican report. J.R. Davis, the governor's spokesman, said the governor saw "no need" to disclose specifics because the money came from private sources. He was unmoved by my argument that knowledge of the source of money given politicians — whether for campaign or other expenses — are important in accountability and guarding against undue influence.

Davis eventually came to a different legal explanation of the office purchases from contributed money. He said that the Republican Party had raised money from various sources and had itself bought furniture for use by the governor. That furniture is the property of the Republican Party and it will be the party's decision what to do with it when Hutchinson's time in office is done, he told me Wednesday afternoon. Davis also provided a list of personal property owned by the Republican Party and compiled for commercial property tax purposes. The list was highlighted for me to show items used by the governor. Davis said he obtained the list after my inquiries.

It's more than $55,000 worth of furniture: including a $5,250 desk, a $6,900 rug; a $7,500 bookcase, and two $3,000 side chairs. Again, it was not taxpayer financed.

Who provided the money to pay for them? Hard to say. Some major contributions went to the party in late 2014 and early 2015 from familiar corporate and individual names as well as all those who purchased inaugural tickets, but it's impossible to tell from the records if this money was for general party support or inaugural festivities. There is a way under Arkansas law to set up a separate committee for an inauguration and raise and spend money in a fully itemized fashion, but that wasn't the route chosen here.

 The GOP made a haul in December after Hutchinson's election, the Republican Party reports show. Several million poured in, including $50,000 from Mountaire Poultry; $25,000 from Bank of the Ozarks, the nursing home lobby, Cooper Communities, Tyson Foods, a Stephens family entity, Charles Cella and Walmart. The $10,000 contributors were numerous, including Koch Industries. 

Regarding Mansion accounting: The governor's deputy legal counsel, "Vu" Ritchie, informed us Wednesday that the Governor's Mansion staff answers to the governor's office, and requests for information about records kept in the mansion by mansion staff should go to the governor's press office. Ritchie earlier denied the Times' request for mansion inventory records, saying they were the governor's working papers and exempt from the FOIA. However, Ritchie later said the request was denied because the office thought the Times was asking that a record be created, which the FOIA does not require of government, and referred questions about purchases for the mansion to the Department of Finance and Administration. Those questions have been asked. Our queries have so far failed to produce full responses on questions about all mansion spending, including that with Tipton and Hurst. We've previously disclosed that the governor got $1.1 million in grants from an agency under Hurst's command for various structural jobs at the Mansion, a significant number to enhance, as the application said, the "comfort" of the first family by improvements to private quarters, including a $2,000 TV and $3,500 washer and dryer so the family wouldn't have to share a Mansion laundry.

Though he wasn't cheery about it, I'd note that Mike Huckabee disclosed more about both his inaugural spending (which included wardrobe and jewelry for the first lady) and furniture purchased for the Governor's Mansion. When you've sunk below Huckabee on the transparency scale, you have fallen to a low level.

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