Judges allege pressure under Huckabee | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Judges allege pressure under Huckabee

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2007 at 7:52 AM

In an article for workcompcentral.com, Michael Whiteley writes that local attorney Rick Spencer "alleges that a top aide to ex-governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee pressured judges to rule against injured workers and played a role in the firings of three judges who say they were removed for favoring claimants over business."

The affidavits filed by Daniels and White allege a pattern of intimidation that left administrative law judges openly joking around the AWCC offices in Little Rock that they could be fired for ruling against Wal-Mart.

[Bill] Daniels, a Monticello, Ark., attorney, said he was told after he was hired by former Huckabee Chief of Staff Brenda Turner that he needed to be mindful of Huckabee's pro-business stance.

"She later stated that I should 'remember that we have a very pro-business governor,'" Daniels said in a March 21, 2005, affidavit.

"I believed then that I was being directed by the governor's chief of staff to interpret act 796 of 1993 and any cases which came before me in a manner that would result in decisions favorable to respondents and the business and insurance industry without regard to the facts and the law," Daniels said in the affidavit.

Read the full article after the jump.

Arkansas -- Huckabee Aide Pressured Judges, Attorney Says: Top [03/07/07]

An Arkansas attorney alleges that a top aide to ex-governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee pressured judges to rule against injured workers and played a role in the firings of three judges who say they were removed for favoring claimants over business.

Attorney Rick Spencer raised influence-peddling allegations against Huckabee's administration and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in a workers' compensation case that he lost last month.

Court documents in Long v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. charge that Huckabee's chief of staff and his liaison to the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission (AWCC) repeatedly complained about judges' decisions after being pressured by former Wal-Mart lobbyist, Steve Carter.

Both Insurance Commissioner Julie Benafield Bowman, former chief executive officer of the AWCC, and current CEO Alan McClain deny the allegations.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled Feb. 21 that Spencer "failed to demonstrate that either the executive branch of the State of Arkansas or various private interests exerted pressure on the administrative law judge or the commissioner sitting in this case that infringed upon their decisional independence and resulted in either actual bias or the appearance of bias."

Spencer charged in the Long case and in an ethics complaint he filed with the Arkansas Supreme Court that three judges were fired for ruling favorably on behalf of plaintiffs.

Only one of the three judges filed a lawsuit: Former Judge Eileen Harrison filed a complaint in federal court against the commission and settled the case for $125,000.

Spencer sought to use evidence and testimony from six depositions taken in connection with Harrison's federal lawsuit to show that workers' compensation courts had a bias toward employers and that the governor's office was behind it.

Harrison introduced as evidence during her trial a report that Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., had joined other members of the Arkansas Self-Insurers Association (ASIA) in repeated warnings that judges were "eroding" a 1993 workers' compensation reform package.

The appeals court agreed last month with the AWCC's decision not to consider the depositions in the Long case. The court said the evidence the AWCC did consider -- affidavits signed by fired judges William "Bill" Daniels and C. Michael White -- failed to show bias in the Long case and "do not establish an abuse of discretion."

A parallel ethics complaint Spencer filed, which also contends judges were ordered to make it difficult for him to practice before the AWCC, was dismissed by the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and later by the state Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct.

Spencer said last week he will appeal the Long case to the Arkansas Supreme Court and argue that intense pressure on judges by the former governor's office denied applicant Tony Long and others due process under the U.S. Constitution.

"This is a sad, sad story," Spencer said. "You've got judges in these cases making rulings knowing that it may cost them their jobs."

Huckabee's office denied the allegations at the time of the firings. In a deposition filed in the Harrison case, Huckabee said he was generally aware of complaints about the commission but did not recall discussions of specific judges or commissioners.

Alice Stewart, press secretary for the Huckabee presidential exploratory committee, referred all questions to McClain.

Champion of the underdog

Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, replaced Gov. Jim Guy Tucker mid-term after Tucker was convicted for a felony related to the Whitewater scandal. He went on to serve two full terms as governor.

Huckabee filed paperwork to launch his presidential bid on Jan. 29, a day after he announced his intentions on NBC's "Meet the Press," and told host Tim Russert, "America loves an underdog."

The affidavits filed by Daniels and White allege a pattern of intimidation that left administrative law judges openly joking around the AWCC offices in Little Rock that they could be fired for ruling against Wal-Mart.

Daniels, a Monticello, Ark., attorney, said he was told after he was hired by former Huckabee Chief of Staff Brenda Turner that he needed to be mindful of Huckabee's pro-business stance.

"She later stated that I should 'remember that we have a very pro-business governor,'" Daniels said in a March 21, 2005, affidavit.

"I believed then that I was being directed by the governor's chief of staff to interpret act 796 of 1993 and any cases which came before me in a manner that would result in decisions favorable to respondents and the business and insurance industry without regard to the facts and the law," Daniels said in the affidavit.

Under Arkansas law, the state's administrative law judges can be fired without notice or cause. They hold the first hearings on workers' compensation cases. Their decisions can be appealed to the AWCC and then to the Court of Appeals.

In December 2002, Daniels said he was approached by then AWCC Commissioner Shelby "Terry" Turner, the husband of Huckabee's chief of staff, and advised that the commissioner had reviewed Daniels' decisions and "was surprised to find that I ruled in favor of claimants about 35% of the time."

Daniels said he was fired five months later on May 1, 2003, and told only "it was in everyone's best interests."

Former Administrative Law Judge White, who is helping Spencer with the constitutional challenge, said he also was fired without explanation and said judges continually felt pressured to rule against claimants.

He said one commission official warned him the commission was going to go "in the way the political winds are blowing."

White, who served as an administrative law judge for nine years and an AWCC attorney for five years before that, was fired from his judge's post in September 2004.

Wal-Mart concerned

Depositions filed in connection with the Harrison case allege a continuing dialogue in the late 1990s among business leaders, Brenda Turner, and Marcus Devine, Huckabee's workers' compensation liaison, over concerns that the judges' rulings were contrary to the spirit of the 1993 reforms.

Devine testified in a Sept. 16, 1999, deposition that he had received complaints about the decisions of then-AWCC Chairman Eldon Coffman from "members of big industry."

Devine said the complaints came from Carter, the Wal-Mart lobbyist and son of then-Wal-Mart Vice President Paul Carter, according to court records. Devine said he relayed them to Huckabee, who asked him to investigate.

Devine said he interpreted the complaints to mean Coffman too often voted with the labor commissioner on the three-member AWCC, yielding a two-to-one margin for workers.

Devine said business leaders never ordered him to fire Coffman or anyone else associated with the commission.

"They raised their concern. They'd never put to me that they wanted this action taken or that action taken," Devine testified. "They just raised their concerns about Mr. Coffman."

Devine said he met with Coffman and told him of Wal-Mart's concerns. He said the governor's office had not decided to take any action.

"I made him really aware, as a heads-up, of the fact that there were these complaints out and about."

In a deposition also taken in connection with Harrison's firing, retired U.S. District Judge Henry Woods, her father, said Coffman warned him at a social gathering that Harrison's job was on the line.

Woods said the former AWCC chairman told him, "I must tell you that we're being pursued by the self-insurers and some of the insurance companies to get rid of Eileen to discharge and fire her, because they feel that she is being too fair to claimants." Coffman said he does not remember that conversation.

Harrison had issued a controversial ruling challenging the constitutionality of a section of the worker's compensation law mandating that injured workers have given "implied consent" for drug testing.

Axes to grind?

Harrison was fired by Bowman, while she was serving as then chief executive officer of the workers' compensation commission.

Bowman said in an interview Friday that no administrative law judge was fired for ruling in favor of claimants.

"Absolutely not," Bowman said. "I don't think the Huckabee administration was even aware of what kinds of cases were filed over there. There was absolutely no pressure on administrative law judges to make decisions one way or the other."

She said Chapter 796 represented a "huge change" in workers' compensation that triggered monitoring from everyone involved.

"I have read those affidavits," Bowman said. "In my opinion, they are not accurate. They are written by employees who were terminated and who were disgruntled and who have axes to grind."

Reached at his home in Fort Smith, Ark., Coffman also denied that the judges' firings were retribution for pro-worker rulings.

"I never saw that," he said. "To my knowledge, Mr. Spencer never represents respondents. That's the true test ... if you read some of his cases, you'd know why he didn't win."

McClain, who's been CEO of the workers' compensation for about two years, said Friday the allegations of political influence are dated and had no relevance to the Long case.

"It was before my time. But as long as I've been around, it's been my understanding that the governor's office hasn't had any input into the decision making of the administrative law judges.

"It's highly unlikely the governor put pressure on the administrative law judges," he said.

White said tensions among judges have eased during the administration of Gov. Mike Beebe. But White said he is pushing for statutory protections that would guarantee judges can't be fired without cause.

"We need to keep pressing this issue," he said. "We don't know who will come into office next as governor. We don't know what will happen."

John Simley, a spokesperson at Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., said said the world's largest retailer agrees with the appeals court decision and declined further comment.

Documents filed in connection with the cases are available at Spencer's Web site, http://www.rickspencer.com by clicking on the button labeled "WCC ALJ's Threatened."

--By Michael Whiteley, WorkCompCentral Southeast Bureau Chief
mike@workcompcentral.com

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