Late-night Capitol visit becomes issue in Republican primary race | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Late-night Capitol visit becomes issue in Republican primary race

Posted By on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 at 4:16 PM

click to enlarge CAPITOL: Burris notes a point of interest on early morniing tour Oct. 18. - SECRETARY OF STATE
  • Secretary of State
  • CAPITOL: Burris notes a point of interest on early morniing tour Oct. 18.

Some late-night sightseeing in the state Capitol has created an issue in the Republican primary race for state treasurer, with several other prominent Republicans on the periphery.

Did one candidate try to use the episode, caught on security video, to force another candidate out of a statewide race? Did he have anything to go on? Read on.

It happened between roughly 1:40 and 3 a.m. Oct. 18, the day the legislature would meet at midnight to complete action at a brief special session on state teacher insurance legislation.

Four Republican legislators — Reps. John Burris, Duncan Baird and Micah Neal and House Speaker Davy Carter and a couple of friends, one of them lobbyist and former state Republican official Katherine Vasilos — made an early morning visit to the Capitol. According to a record of the visit from Capitol police, they wanted to go on the Capitol roof. Chief Darrell Hedden reported to Secretary of State Mark Martin's top aides, "Sergeant Thornton told me he felt some of the individuals had possible issues of steadiness and he told them that earlier in the week the freight elevator had malfunctioned st[r]anding two individuals for several hours. He also told them we did not have a key to access the roof at this time and they could not go to the roof."

Security video shows several walked around the interior of the building.  Baird left about 2:25 a.m. Thornton said the remainder of the group left at 2:54 a.m. During the visit, some of the group tried to ride the freight elevator, he said.

In an initial note to Kelly Boyd of Martin's staff at 6:45 a.m. that day, Hedden commented, "The officers were told that Secretary Martin would be contacted to rectify this and they would return the next night for a trip to the roof." He did not identify who said this. Boyd wrote back, "A roof tour is not a good idea at 1:30 a.m."

At Boyd's request, Hedden prepared a video of events, four segments of a minute or so each. They include shots as members of the group drifted through the tunnel entry, in a hallway and walking northward in front of the Capitol. The group, some carrying plastic cups, don't look unsteady. The only thing out of ordinary is the hour of Capitol entry. At one point, Burris seems to be gesturing in a hallway, like a tour guide explaining a point about the Capitol

A little early morning sightseeing. A few words with a security officer.

Inevitably, though, politics arose. On Nov. 4, Jim Harris, a campaign aide to Dennis Milligan, made an FOI request for copies of the e-mails and video about "anyone attempting to gain access to the roof of the Capitol after normal business hours ..." Milligan is an opponent of Baird in the Republican primary for state treasurer. He'd been silent until I inquired about it. Now he's ready to make an issue, if by thinly veiled means. He denied that he used the information in any improper way in calling Baird and saying he had information about the visit.

This is how Milligan political spokesman Harris (an aide to brother-in-law Mike Huckabee in the Huckabee gubernatorial years), related events:

He said, "In any campaign, opponent research is part of it. There are no secrets at the Capitol."

After getting the information, Milligan talked to Baird. Not, said Harris, to pressure him into getting out of the race. "Dennis did not tell him to get out of the race. He did tell him he's got lots of enemies." Harris said this assessment was a product of Baird being part of the group that blocked Terry Rice's ascension as House speaker in favor of Davy Carter and that he was a "floor leader" of adoption of the private option Medicaid expansion championed by Burris, now a top political operative for Senate candidate Tom Cotton. "So he's made enemies," Harris said.

This is not trying to pressure someone out of the race with information believed to be embarrassing? Harris said: "At no time did he say, 'I want you out of the race.'"

Harris reported that Baird told Milligan he was unconcerned about the matter. Based on the video and the absence of a report suggesting untoward actions by Baird, that doesn't seem surprising. (Can we all agree everyone needs a reminder about the omnipresence of video cameras nowadays?)

Milligan sent a further prepared response from Milligan on my question of whether he was saying Baird should withdraw on the strength of this visit to the Capitol (see it in full on the jump.). That's for Baird to decide, Milligan said. But he said e-mails "clearly indicate" an effort by someone to pressure Capitol police to allow people to go where "people in a noted 'unsteady' state' should not go.' He said whoever made such a statement should apologize.

I've sought comments from Burris, Baird, Carter and Neal. No responses so far. I'll post the video if I can overcome technical obstacles. More from Milligan:

Milligan statement:

“I think that is a question only Baird can decide and answer. The voters will ultimately decide if Baird’s judgment and actions that night cause them enough concern to vote for him or not in the primary. A State Treasurer must have good judgment so we don’t have another situation in Arkansas like we had with Martha Shoffner and her abuse of privilege and power in public office.

“The e-mails that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act clearly indicate to me there was an effort to pressure the Capitol Police officer on duty that night to allow those individuals with Baird to gain access to places where people in a noted ‘unsteady state’ should not go. The person or persons that made such statements should apologize to the officer who was just doing his duty.

“I am running for State Treasurer on my record and experience as a successful small businessman, former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, and as Saline County Circuit Clerk

“If voters want a Treasurer who looks beyond the standard: "but that's the way we've always done it" excuse not to improve a public office, I'm their man. I offer something different than just a term-limited legislator who is looking to stay on the state payroll like we had in Martha Shoffner.”

“I believe in facing your opponent man-to-man. I met with Baird to let him know his questionable role in working hand-in-hand with Democrats to substitute state Rep. Terry Rice with Rep. Davy Carter as the first Republican Speaker of the House – giving Democrat Governor Mike Beebe and Democrat House members more control than they should have had as the minority party - and Baird‘s efforts as the House floor leader in passing the “Private Option” version of Obamacare have made Baird unpopular in some Republican circles.

“If Baird’s critics will tell me of incidents like this, they will not stop there. I had not completed my opposition research and I wanted to see what he had to say about that night first hand. However, at no time in our conversation did I ask him to get out of the race.”

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