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All in the family 

A legislator’s effort puts son to work.

CONFLICTED OR NOT? State Rep. Stephanie Flowers said Sen. Hank Wilkins' application for a state grant raised a question of conflict of interest. That was even before Wilkins' son was hired out of the grant money.
  • CONFLICTED OR NOT? State Rep. Stephanie Flowers said Sen. Hank Wilkins' application for a state grant raised a question of conflict of interest. That was even before Wilkins' son was hired out of the grant money.

Money from a controversial $91,909 state-funded, substance-abuse-prevention grant awarded to state Sen. Hank Wilkins IV's Pine Bluff church has been used to hire his son as the program's coordinator.

The salary for the coordinator, Hank Wilkins V, is $34,600 per year. One half-time staff person will receive $9,680. On top of the salary, the coordinator and assistant will receive a combined $7,970 worth of fringe benefits. 

Wilkins is the pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff. At the time the grant was awarded, the senator's wife, Phyllis, also worked at the church as outreach coordinator. St. James received the grant to open a drug and alcohol prevention resource center after two other groups (both ranked higher in an evaluation process than St. James, according to the Arkansas Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinating Council) opted out.

Four groups applied for the grant, which is awarded by the Department of Human Services. Applicants are reviewed by a panel with expertise in the field and, if they pass a certain threshold, are sent on to the prevention and treatment committee for consideration. St. James's application initially ranked third, with a score of 59.5, 10 points lower than is usually required for further review.

The grant was originally awarded to the Area Health Education Center-South Arkansas, a division of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It decided not to accept the grant. The grant was then awarded to Phoenix Youth and Family Service. Wilkins' church had appealed the initial decision, but the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinating Council denied the appeal. After Phoenix also backed out, St. James was given the grant.

The rest of the $91,909 will go to maintenance ($15,699), equipment ($4,400), travel to conferences ($3,705), mini-grants for each of the five counties served ($7,500), and “indirect costs” (including bookkeeping, janitorial, and security) of $8,355. 

Rep. Stephanie Flowers, a Pine Bluff Democrat, initially opposed the state Legislative Council's decision to approve the grant to Wilkins's church. She asked the council to delay the decision, saying it raised questions about legislative self-dealing and a possible conflict of interest.

“There were two other applicants and I just think the public would look at that as self-dealing or self-interest. I would think that UAMS, the number one candidate, would have been sufficient to provide those services,” Flowers says. “If UAMS is going to concentrate on drug prevention as one of their missions, then why didn't they get the money in the first place?”

Flowers believes the hiring of Wilkins' son is a further conflict of interest.

“And not just because it's his son,” she said. “I just think it's inappropriate because we already have agencies set up, provided for with taxpayer dollars, that are capable of doing it.”

Julie Munsell, director of communications for DHS denied any impropriety on either the award of the grant or the hiring of Wilkins' son to run the program.

“I don't think there are any provisions or exclusions to keep them from employing family members. But disclosure issues would apply in terms of the salary.”

Department of Finance and Administration officials also said the senator and his wife had made proper disclosures about their ties to the church.

At the time it was awarded, Wilkins suggested that Flowers opposed the grant because he had supported her opponent in the last election. But Flowers said she had “no animosity toward Senator Wilkins or the church.” 

Kenya Buffington is a project officer for the Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, and is the interim contact for new center. She said the position for which the younger Wilkins was hired was advertised and that more than one applicant had been interviewed by a panel. She also said the prevention center was not operating as of yet and, therefore, could not be reached.   

Hank Wilkins V is a Harvard graduate and worked as the research director for Victory 2004, part of the Kerry campaign in Little Rock in 2004, but efforts to get more of his background were unsuccessful.

Senator Wilkins did not respond to messages left seeking comments for this article and there were no answers to phone calls to the church. Buffington said the new substance abuse prevention program was supposed to be in operation Sept. 1, but she said all elements of the office may not be running yet.

UPDATE: After the article appeared in print, we heard from Senator Wilkins.

He took exception to the print article's characterization that he had hired his son. (That wording has now been clarified to show that the grant his church received was used to hire his son.)

The senator, a Democrat, said he had nothing to do with the grant, except that, in his duties as pastor, he is made aware when the church applies for such things. He maintains his son was hired by a committee of six church officers and that his son, Hank Wilkins V, will answer to that committee.
 
“I was aware that the committee had taken the information [about the position], per the necessary requirements, to the local newspaper,” Senator Wilkins said. “They advertised the position, they set meetings and held interviews. They informed me when they were going to do interviews and I sat in on some of the interviews. I said to the committee at that time that since I was pastor of the church, and since my son was one of the people who applied, I was going to recuse myself from the committee's discussions and decisions… Since my son was one of the applicants, I wanted to avoid any appearance of my attempting to sway the committee's decision in any direction.”
 
The senator said his son was qualified for the position, through his education at Harvard and many volunteer experiences. He also added that his son was at one time, but is not currently, enrolled in a public health program at UALR.
He has previously said, in response to another legislator's criticism, that he saw no conflict in his church obtaining the grant.
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