Ethics complaint filed against lawmakers and PAC who backed private option | Arkansas Blog

Friday, February 12, 2016

Ethics complaint filed against lawmakers and PAC who backed private option

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 4:10 PM

Jeff Oland of Farmington filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission today against the PAC Conservative Arkansas and its four officers, which includes Rep. Jana Della Rosa, Sen. Jon Woods, and former Rep. John Burris. Here's the complaint, along with a press release: 


The complaint alleges that Conservative Arkansas made illegal and unreported in-kind contributions to the campaigns of Woods in 2012 and Burris (who ran unsuccessfully for senate) in 2014. The expenditures were for a campaign mailer and a radio ad, respectively. The long and the short of it is that Conservative Arkansas spent around $5,000 during each of those two campaigns on mailers and radio spots that at least looked/sounded like campaign ads. Was this legal issue speech, a legal independent expenditure, or an illegal contribution to the campaigns in excess of the legal limit (at the time, $2,000 per race for PACs)? There's not enough information in the complaint to parse the legal niceties. The law allows a lot of gray-area shenanigans and these complaints usually go nowhere with the Ethics Commission. 

A little background here is in order: Conservative Arkansas, run by Patsy Wootton of Springdale, has generally backed Republicans who support the private option. The PAC, Wootton, and Della Rosa (Wootton's daughter) have had a long-running feud with anti-PO activists. Lots of mean stuff has been said on social media. The feud has been especially heated between Conservative Arkansas and the various groups affiliated with Fayetteville businessman Joe Maynard, who funds Conduit for Action and a dizzying slew of related PACs and other entities, all dedicated to funneling campaign cash to fight the private option. Conduit, which has pushed hard against Della Rosa in her primary, recently posted audio of Wootton calling the police to complain about one of Della Rosa's primary opponents, Randy Alexander, putting up campaign signs that blocked her daughter's. 

Among the politicians who have been the most frequent targets of Conduit's ire: Burris, Woods (who opted not to run for re-election), and Della Rosa. 

Della Rosa has struck back against Conduit as well as Americans for Prosperity, another conservative advocacy group that has attacked her for her 2015 vote to back Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to continue the private option for two years and form a task force to figure out what to do next. In her own mailers, she has complained that they are "puppet masters" using dark money to try to dominate the political process.

Oland's press release makes reference to Della Rosa's condemnation of dark money groups. "Such outcries reek of hypocrisy," it states. This at least looks like an attempted hit on Conduit's foes and backers of the PO. 

Oland, a subcontractor and woodworker, told me via email that he has been involved in politics in Northwest Arkansas for six years. I asked whether he has any connection to Conduit (or AFP). He replied: "Yes. I attend the training and informative events offered by all 3 entities. I have personal acquaintance with their local reps as well. I believe in liberty and justice for all and if any one of these organizations or individuals breaks the rules they ought to be held to account."

If Conduit helped push this complaint, there's some irony here. A candidate they backed once sent his campaign finance materials from the law offices of Brenda Taylor, a co-founder along with Maynard of a Conduit group spending tens of thousands of ostensibly independent money on his campaign. They have now formed numerous PACs — a maneuver that could be used to funnel money to candidates that circumvents limits on individual donors and the ban on corporate donors. And AFP, of course, carefully follows the law in avoiding "magic words" like "vote for," allowing them to spend gobs of undisclosed money on supposed "issue speech" that any normal person would view as campaign ads. All three of these groups use tactics that defy the spirit of campaign finance laws (although Conservative Arkansas spends peanuts compared to the big-pocketed splurging of Conduit and AFP), but the Ethics Commission very rarely finds that these sorts of high jinks actually violate the law.
 
I've asked Wootton for a comment and will update if I hear back. I spoke with Della Rosa by phone. She said that Conduit has previously blogged about these issues some weeks back. "I understand why they're suddenly filing an ethics complaint now — they're trying to trash me two weeks before the election," she said. "They're trying to trash me the Friday before early vote so that there's no response. It's a political game — file an ethics complaint even if there's nothing to it." She said that Conservative Arkansas reported everything and made every effort to follow all laws and regulations. She said that there was no coordination between the group and the campaigns of Woods and Burris.   

I also spoke with Woods by phone. He told me that he remembered that a mailer had been sent out in his district in 2012 by the group, but said he didn't remember any of its details. He himself had nothing to do with the mailer in any case, he said. 

Burris sent a comment by email and blamed the complaint on Conduit co-founders Maynard and Taylor: 

I have long disagreed with BrendaTaylor and Joe Maynard on the topic of healthcare. Unfortunately, they find disagreement unacceptable. For example, in the upcoming fiscal session, they'll lead the effort to hold hostage appropriations bills until a small minority of legislators override the will of the majority. It's only one example of how they do not wish to participate in the process, but to control it.

Regarding the complaint: Joe and Brenda previously facilitated the filing of multiple complaints against myself and others. It's indicative of their desire to attack any person with whom they disagree. All of their previous complaints against me were dismissed, after thousands of taxpayer dollars spent investigating.This one will be as well.

I wish Joe and Brenda the best, and encourage them to find a little more balance in their life. Obsession is not a healthy thing. 
Support for special health care reporting made possible by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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