Spousal employment watch in state government | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Spousal employment watch in state government

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2012 at 11:39 AM

If all goes according to stated plans, two spouses of state legislators will soon go back to work in state jobs for which proper clearance wasn't obtained on the front end.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported today on a second instance of a self-reported failure to comply with a law (apparently because of ignorance) about hiring spouses of legislators. Cynthia Edwards, wife of state Rep. John Edwards of Little Rock, lost her $95,000 job as deputy secretary of the Agriculture Department because she was hired in January 2011 without the required pre-approval of a legislative committee and governor.

Earlier, UAMS ended the employment of Phyllis Wilkins, a mental health worker whose work at UAMS went back to 2003, including a rehire in 2010. She made $60,000 and is the wife of Sen. HankWilkins of Pine Bluff.

Both agencies said they were unaware that a 1999 law aimed at preventing employment of sitting legislators by state agencies also limited employment of spouses. For jobs paying more than $37,600, spouses may be hired, but approval of the governor and Legislative Council are required first. Both UAMS and the Agriculture Department say they intend to meet those requirements now and rehire Edwards and Wilkins. As yet, nobody has suggested either was unqualified for the job or received it on account of their relationship.

These self reports were spurred by the controversy over the hiring of Sen. Joyce Elliott to lead a multi-agency neighborhood improvement project in the UALR neighborhood. Nobody has established with certainty that this was a state agency job under the terms of the 1999 law, but UALR was the paying agent for grant money and sufficient odor attached that Elliott resigned.

But let's take the occasion to speak a little more about spousal employment. One other example is the practice of hiring spouses (well, generally wives) for part-time legislative jobs during the session. These jobs don't meet the $37,000 threshold for which high level approval is required, of course. I also don't think anyone would seriously argue that the little jobs are unconnected to family relationships. In the last session, the employees in the Senate included the wives of four senators Gene and Jimmy Jeffress, David Wyatt and Jerry Taylor, and the House speaker, Robert Moore. Don't have the list yet on House employees, if any.

And here's another spousal situation to watch. Legislators are chafing under the taxpayer lawsuit (I was a plaintiff) that ended automatic pay supplements in the form of undocumented "expense" reimbursements. I'm hearing some are talking about "improving" their past practice of paying spouses as consultants or something similar in a sham to claim expense reimbursements.

Under the new routine that settled the lawsuit, legislators must submit specific expenses for reimbursement and they will be audited. Will legislators really hire their wives/husbands as paid staff? Will they pay the required payroll withholding? (Rep. Ed Garner can testify how tricky this can get.) Will the spouses keep time cards? Will legislators first advertise these jobs to all comers? Will legislators REALLY, with a straight face, attempt to put their spouses on the state payroll to evade a new accountability law?

Anything is possible. It bears watching.

UPDATE: The House report on temporary employment of legislative spouses follows, from a House spokesman:

The House has employed legislative spouses in temporary, session-only positions.

During the 2011 regular session, seven spouses were employed. Their positions, names and weekly salaries were as follows:

North Gallery Host Jo Lindsey $440
Chief of Pages Joan Pierce $484
Receptionist supervisor Virginia Cheatham $453
Receptionist LaWanda Dale $440
Receptionist Peggy Summers $440
Receptionist Susan Altes $440
Assistant Chief Sgt. at Arms Thomas Bradford $447

During the fiscal session this year, eight spouses were employed. Their positions, names and weekly salaries were as follows:

Member/Constituent Host Jo Lindsey $440
Message Clerk Joan Pierce $440
Receptionist supervisor Virginia Cheatham $453
Receptionist LaWanda Dale $440
Receptionist Peggy Summers $440
Receptionist Susan Altes $440
Assistant Chief Sgt. at Arms Thomas Bradford $447
Sergeant at Arms George Overbey $440

By the way, the number of temporary, session-only employees during regular sessions has been reduced from 69 in 2009 to 45 in 2011. The number of temporary, session-only employees during fiscal session likewise has declined, from 45 in 2010 to 34 in 2012.

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