LITTLE ROCK — The state Republican Party’s attempts to make political hay out of a series of recent scandals involving Democratic officeholders may have been undercut by revelations of possible mishandling of funds by Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr.
Before Darr’s difficulties came to light, the GOP was crowing over the downfall of Democrats such as:
• Former state Rep. Hudson Hallum of Marion, who resigned and pleaded guilty to election fraud in September 2012. He was sentenced to one year of home detention, fined $20,000 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.
• Former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, who resigned in May and is scheduled to stand trial in March on charges of extortion and accepting bribes.
• Former state Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro, who resigned in August after the state Ethics Commission fined him $8,000 for converting more than $53,000 in campaign funds to personal use. A special prosecutor is reviewing that case.
On Aug. 16, the day that the Ethics Commission fined Bookout, state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb issued a statement in which he called for Bookout to be held accountable and said, "It is sad that this type of behavior is all too common among Arkansas Democrats, who have controlled the state for the last 130 years."
Webb was considerably more muted in his response to ethical allegations against Darr last week.
On Wednesday, the staff of the Ethics Commission said it had found evidence that Darr may have improperly spent more than $44,000 in public funds and campaign contributions and may have violated up to 12 state ethics laws. The commission has not yet announced a final action in the case.
Darr declined to comment Wednesday. He has previously addressed some of the allegations against him by saying he mistakenly believed he could repay loans he made to his campaign by using campaign funds for personal purchases.
The news from the Ethics Commission followed on the heels of a legislative audit that found Darr owes the state more than $9,000 for unauthorized travel reimbursements. The audit has been referred to Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, who said last week he may ask the Pulaski County Quorum Court for about $25,000 to pay for a grand jury to review allegations against Darr and others.
Questions over Darr’s handling of money led him to drop out of the 4th District congressional race in August. He has not said whether he will seek re-election.
"What we’ve seen is a pretty strong Republican charge against corruption and things like that," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Darr’s alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University. "The allegations and now the evidence with regard to Darr is going to make it more difficult to isolate the charges and concerns against Democrats."
Bass, who knows Darr personally but said he did not recall having him as a student, said he does not see good options for either party in dealing with Darr’s situation. Though it may weaken Republican charges of corruption across the aisle, he said it also poses difficulties for Democrats, who run the risk of getting "mired into an ‘everybody does it’ mentality."
As for the damage to Darr’s political future, Bass said that "you never say never in Arkansas" but that Darr has been badly damaged.
"I don’t see Darr as somebody who had real deep party roots within what I call the party establishment or the party organization," he said. "He kind of came out of nowhere in 2010, and in that sense I would think that he’s probably more expendable than somebody who was more deeply rooted in the Republican Party organization. It would be easier to cut him free."
A former insurance agent and pizza parlor owner, Darr had no political experience when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and defeated the Democratic nominee, veteran legislator Shane Broadway of Bryant.
Webb issued a statement last week that neither condemned Darr nor asserted his innocence.
"To my understanding the lieutenant governor has apologized, he is taking responsibility, and he intends to solve the problems that he has created in his reporting," he said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said last week that Darr had brought shame to his office, but he stopped short of calling for his resignation.
"It would be premature of me to call for Mark Darr’s resignation before we get the final report from the Ethics Commission," Insalaco said Friday. "Nevertheless, the initial numbers of misspent campaign dollars and potential violations of the law are disturbing. It’s clear that Darr has brought shame to the office of lieutenant governor and that Arkansans deserve better."
The governor and legislative leaders were guarded in their comments about Darr last week.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said Beebe is withholding judgment until he sees the final action of the Ethics Commission.
"But of course, what we’ve seen so far is troubling," DeCample said.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said he never called for Bookout’s resignation and would not call for Darr’s.
"I think it’s a sad situation and kind of a reminder to all of us that we’ve got to do things better," he said.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he did not know enough about the case to comment.