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Arkansas Senate suspends Clark for “frivolous” complaint, changes rules for future ethics filings

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Arkansas Senate suspends Clark for “frivolous” complaint, changes rules for future ethics filings

Sep 27, 2022 | 7:32 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
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Arkansas Senate suspends Clark for “frivolous” complaint, changes rules for future ethics filings
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The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday to suspend Sen. Alan Clark for the remainder of the year because ethics charges he brought against another senator were "spurious, frivolous and retaliatory." (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Senate)

The Arkansas Senate voted to sanction Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), who was not present at Tuesday’s Senate meeting, for filing a “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory” ethics complaint against Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff).

The 26-4 vote came after three Senate Ethics Committee meetings and two full Senate meetings, bringing an end to several weeks of debate about the complaint and whether Clark should face consequences.

The Senate also voted to change its rules to require future ethics complaints to be brought by a minimum of three senators.

Clark was suspended for the rest of 2022 and demoted to the lowest level of seniority for the next two years. The Ethics Committee recommended these consequences Sept. 9 after about 16 hours of testimony and debate on Clark’s complaint against Flowers.

“We spent hours working on this and developing this, trying to define what ‘frivolous’ is, but that’s not what this is about,” said Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville), a member of the committee. “This is about what is right and what is wrong. This is about protecting the character of the Arkansas state Senate.”

Clark was on a pre-planned vacation Tuesday and did not respond to phone calls or an email requesting comment.

Flowers erroneously received nearly $3,000 in per diem and travel payments for attending legislative sessions via Zoom in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she reimbursed the Senate in August after determining the payments had been made in error.

Clark was disciplined by the Senate in July over a separate per-diem issue and publicly voiced frustration with the decision on social media and in interviews. The Ethics Committee interpreted his statements as “intent to retaliate against the Senate.”

He filed a complaint against Flowers on Aug. 18 for the improper payments, but the committee found that the complaint “did not have merit” and the payments were a “clerical error,” according to the committee’s Sept. 9 report.

The Senate voted unanimously Sept. 16 to absolve Flowers of Clark’s charges against her, with ​​Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) abstaining from the vote. Garner was also incorrectly paid for meetings he attended by videoconference, and he also agreed to reimburse the Senate for the payments.

Clark brought legal representation to the Sept. 16 meeting, and the Senate voted to accept new witnesses and evidence from him after he claimed the Ethics Committee did not review all the relevant evidence or hear his case thoroughly. The Senate then voted 20-9 to give Clark more time to prepare his case at a future meeting.

Clark’s lawyers were not present Tuesday due to previous commitments, meaning no one was available to present the case Clark said he hoped to present.

Frustrations

Senators on Tuesday debated recessing until Clark was able to attend, but they decided against it with a voice vote.

Several senators expressed frustration with Clark’s absence, including Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe), who made the motion Sept. 16 to give Clark more preparation time, and Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), a member of the Ethics Committee.

Garner said the proposed consequences could have a “chilling effect” on future ethics complaints, and he did not want to “disenfranchise” Clark’s constituents because of an internal Senate procedure.

He said suspension was too severe and he did not want to end up in the same boat someday.

“Whether I’m guilty or not, whether I’ve done something wrong, I want to know the procedures and the rules we’ve put in place were followed and done to the best of our ability,” Garner said.

Irvin reminded the Senate that Clark refused to retract his allegations against Flowers twice at the committee’s request after receiving evidence that the complaint did not hold water.

“These were Alan Clark’s choices,” Irvin said. “He’s the one who made the decision to go down this path. He’s the one who jeopardized his ability to serve his constituents.”

Garner questioned the use of the words “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory” to characterize Clark’s complaint.

Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), the Ethics Committee chairman, and Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said the committee considered the complaint spurious and frivolous because it appeared retaliatory.

Hammer said Clark was aware that Garner and Flowers both received improper per diem payments, but Clark did not ask for more information about Garner’s situation before filing a complaint against Flowers, who was a member of the Ethics Committee when it recommended sanctions against Clark in July. The difference in treatment merited the “spurious” label, Hammer said.

Clark made a Facebook post Aug. 9 comparing himself to a “giant killer” and saying he should “look for the right moment to attack.”

“If the giant says he is going to kill you, very calmly let him know that he is the one that is going to die,” Clark wrote.

Hammer said the committee considered the post a sign of intent to retaliate against the Senate. He also reminded his colleagues that the committee found Clark had drafted additional ethics complaints against 30 or more other senators, almost the entire 35-member chamber, making his complaint against Flowers “frivolous.”

Clark’s complaint and ensuing statements “were bringing dishonor and disruption to the institution of the Senate,” Hammer said.

“We also have a moral obligation not to allow Sen. Clark to, quote, ‘Burn the house down,’” Hammer said, referring to a statement Clark gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in early July.

Clark said at the time that he was “shocked” the Ethics Committee recommended sanctions against him and Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Ferndale). He had previously admitted to the Ethics Committee that he was not present at the Senate Boys State committee meeting June 3 due to illness and asked Johnson to sign him in so he could be reimbursed. Clark, who had traveled to Little Rock, would have collected $155 in public funds for mileage and per diem.

He is running unopposed for reelection in November, and he told the Democrat-Gazette he might be “a little meaner” in his next term and “burn the house down” for Johnson, whom he believed was treated unfairly.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Ethics Committee’s recommendations in July to discipline both Clark and Johnson. Both were stripped of committee leadership posts as well as their eligibility for per diem and mileage reimbursement for 2022.

Johnson was also removed from the Ethics Committee and replaced by Wallace.

‘A mockery’

Dismang said the debate over Clark’s behavior “has made a mockery” of the Senate’s process for handling ethics issues. He moved to address the Ethics Committee’s findings in lieu of further debate.

The Senate proceeded to vote 26-4-1 on three motions:

  • To take up the Ethics Committee’s findings for a vote.
  • To uphold the committee’s decision that Clark violated Senate ethics rules with a “spurious, frivolous and retaliatory” complaint.
  • To approve the committee’s proposed sanctions, effective immediately.

Garner, Johnson, Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark) and Sen. Charles Beckham (R-McNeil) voted against all three motions. Four other senators were on leave.

Clark was noted in the legislative record as the sole abstaining vote because he was absent without leave, Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity said.

Clark’s suspension includes the loss of access to the Senate and other legislative facilities and resources, including his Senate email account; the inability to participate in most Senate meetings or committee meetings; and no reimbursement for conference registration fees or Senate-related travel.

The Senate’s last decision Tuesday was a voice vote agreement that future ethics complaints must be filed by at least three senators. If all senators withdraw the complaint, there will be no investigation, but as long as at least one senator is still signed on, the Ethics Committee will investigate, according to the new rule.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) said the change was necessary after Clark’s complaint took weeks to resolve.

“It’s going to be harder to get three rogue members than one,” Hickey said.