Seventeen days. That's how long Lt. Gov. Mark Darr's campaign for U.S. Congress lasted, thanks to the muckraking efforts of local blogger Matt Campbell.
On Aug. 20, Campbell published a post on Blue Hog Report — the independent, Democratic-leaning blog the 35-year-old local attorney writes in his spare time — outlining problems in Darr's campaign finance reporting. For one thing, the Republican Darr had a number of expenses listed as fundraisers in 2011 after having just won a four-year term in 2010. It's unlawful for a candidate to seek campaign contributions more than two years before an election. Even more problematic, many of the expenses listed as fundraisers appeared to be personal expenses.
Campbell highlighted meals at local eateries like Cotham's, Sushi Cafe and Cajun's Wharf. The size of the bills and the lack of money raised gave the impression that Darr was simply dipping into his campaign funds to eat out. "There is nothing about those ... dinners that would even remotely suggest that they were debt-retirement fundraisers rather than Mark Darr simply dining out and paying for the whole tab," Campbell blogged. "While that might make him a nice fellow, that's not a fundraiser."
Even harder to explain for Darr: listing fundraisers at gas stations, which looked an awful lot like Darr was simply filling up his tank. And then there were expenditures at both men's and women's clothing stores listed as "supplies."
If all of this sounds familiar, it should: Former Sen. Paul Bookout (D-Jonesboro), following $8,000 in fines from the Ethics Commission and with a possible criminal prosecution looming, resigned the same day that Campbell put up the initial Darr post. While Darr hadn't spent the same sums as Bookout, the picture was more or less the same: a man using his campaign funds as a personal bank account.
Campbell, a Missouri native who has lived in Little Rock for seven years, is no stranger to ruffling the feathers of lawmakers. Blue Hog Report, which began in 2010, first gained attention using Freedom of Information Act requests to highlight the questionable uses of state gas cards and credit cards in 2011. It is widely assumed that Campbell's FOIA requests to Secretary of State Mark Martin led Chase Dugger, then executive director of the state Republican Party, to send massive FOIA requests of his own to the state Supreme Court, where Campbell then worked. The fishing expedition — aimed to show that Campbell was blogging on state time — came up empty, but the notoriety led Campbell to shut down the blog.
Campbell left his job at the court this spring to start his own firm, Pinnacle Law Firm. The very next day, Blue Hog Report was back online. "I got so frustrated through this past legislative session not having an outlet to just talk about some of the stuff that was going on," he said. "I decided to put the whole thing back up exactly as if I never left." The amount of time Campbell spends on the blog varies but a story like the Darr scandal demands a couple of hours a day, he said. It's a labor of love — he doesn't make any money off of the blog.
After its return, Blue Hog Report continued its use of the FOIA and careful perusal of publicly available documents to do investigative reporting. It was a niche with plenty of room for an aggressive blog to shine. "Between budget cuts and the lack of attention spans, the way most media — especially TV — is packaged, there aren't many people that are willing to put in that time because there's not that many eyeballs that are going to look at it," Campbell said. "I stumbled into that role. I started this blog as a way just to keep tabs on the 2010 elections. After that was over I started looking for something else to write about. I guess I'm just obsessive enough. I'll follow a paper trail and see where it goes."
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