Stealth politics at grassroots in Arkansas 

A funny thing happened shortly before vote-short developer Dickson Flake got a three-month delay from the Little Rock City Board on considering his widely panned proposal to install a MAPCO filling station and 24-hour convenience store at the dangerous Third and Broadway intersection, just a block and a half from a $70 million Robinson Center Music Hall redo.

New opposition arose from the slick Facebook page of Smart Growth Little Rock, which also seems to have been behind robocalls urging residents to call the City Board to oppose the project.

Who is Smart Growth Little Rock? Good question. No answers are readily available. Some of the social media work has been done, however, by a paid employee of the Markham Group, a political consulting firm.

My reading of state law is that when you've spent $400 to attempt to influence government action, including at the city level, you have to register as a lobbyist. But, after talking with the Ethics Commission, it became apparent to me that there are potential loopholes, particularly since the law was written before social media existed.

For example, a group can get together and buy a newspaper ad to urge approval or defeat of a city ordinance without registering as a lobbyist. The ad itself is proof of the lobbying. No further filing is required. Does that mean that putting together a Facebook page or a Twitter account is similarly exempt from reporting? It's a question yet to be determined.

The hows and whys of campaign spending need more study at every level and not just because of the arrival of sophisticated spending by wealthy interests at City Hall.

Already, Koch brother money has had an unhealthy impact on efforts to control development in the Lake Maumelle watershed. Their anti-regulation zeal has helped translate into a concerted effort to weaken the county ordinance. But the lobbying has left few footprints for the public to follow in ethics filings.

At the state level, another loosely associated group is working to repeal a state law that prevents competition for phone companies from a state broadband network that otherwise could serve public schools. The legislature is being lobbied directly about this, but nobody at FASTERArkansas has filed any lobbyist paperwork or made any meaningful financial reporting. They have conceded Walton money is one source of support. The Markham Group is again handling PR mechanics.

FASTERArkansas is organized under favorable tax laws as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. It may engage in political activities. Its only required federal reporting is a sketchy annual tax return.

This has become the preferred route to channel money into political campaigns without fingerprints. In Arkansas this year, such tax-advantaged organizations are spending millions in races from the Arkansas Supreme Court to governor and U.S. Senator. Sources of the money are not revealed. The people who call the shots operate from the shadows. Such organizations provided the lion's share of money spent in a race for Supreme Court and a primary race for attorney general. Voters have no idea what motivated the fundamentally dishonest advertising they bought.

This should be a bipartisan concern. I happen, for example, to agree wholeheartedly with Smart Growth Little Rock's opposition to the MAPCO and am sympathetic with the aims of FASTERArkansas.

But I'd still like to know who they are and where their money is coming from.

Opponents of limits on contributions to political campaigns say the solution is to remove the limits but require full disclosure. You may judge their sincerity by the current spreading practice —unlimited spending with no meaningful disclosure.


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