Arkansas state Sens. Alan Clark (left), R-Lonsdale, and Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, are shown in these undated courtesy photos.
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Kim Hammer said Thursday he expects the committee will make a final decision today about its latest ethics complaint, after it deliberated for nearly five hours Thursday in a closed, executive session.
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, has acknowledged filing an ethics complaint against Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, after he raised questions about legislative expense reimbursements that she was paid.
Thursday’s meeting came a week after the committee met in an executive session for more than nine hours about the complaint. The Senate’s ethics rules give the ethics committee the authority to convene in closed sessions about ethics complaints.
“We will have a final determination [this morning] at 11:30,” Hammer told reporters after Thursday’s meeting adjourned.
“We just really made sure that we are deliberating, getting answers to all the questions that the committee members had and, given the seriousness of the charge, we want to make sure we are giving plenty of time to be thorough in our decision,” said Hammer, a Republican from Benton.
The eight-member ethics committee is tasked with making a recommendation about the complaint to the full 35-member Senate.
Asked whether the committee is weighing whether the complaint is frivolous, Hammer said, “We’ll have a determination [this morning] at 11:30.”
Afterward, Clark said he wouldn’t have filed his ethics complaint against Flowers if he thought it was a frivolous complaint. He said he doesn’t know what the ethics committee will decide today about his complaint against Flowers.
“We’ll see what they say,” he said.
Flowers could not be reached for comment by telephone late Thursday afternoon.
Flowers has served in the Senate since 2011 and was in the House of Representatives from 2005-2011. Clark has served in the Senate since 2013. Flowers is an attorney. Clark is a businessman. They have clashed at times in the Senate.
Arkansas Senate records show that Flowers turned in a check dated Aug. 11 to reimburse the Senate for $2,714 for 46 days of per diem payments. Flowers also turned in a second check dated Aug. 22 to the Senate for an additional $217.60 in per diem and mileage reimbursements, according to records obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
In a check dated Sept. 1, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, reimbursed the Senate $906. “Zoom” was written on the check.
Flowers’ reimbursements to the Senate came after Clark queried the Bureau of Legislative Research in the last week of July about how many Senate Judiciary Committee meetings Flowers had attended in the 2021 regular session and how many meetings she attended by Zoom, according to bureau records.
During the 2021 regular session amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate adopted emergency procedures stating that senators participating remotely via Zoom in a Senate meeting “will not be counted as present for the purposes of per diem, unless the member has traveled to Little Rock from his or her district for the purpose of participating in the session.”
Nearly a month ago, Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he learned from the Senate staff as a result of Clark’s inquiries that Flowers and Garner, who participated in the Senate’s meetings through Zoom during the 2021 regular session, were each incorrectly paid per diem.
“I personally looked at it as a clerical error,” Hickey has said when asked why he didn’t file an ethics complaint against Flowers.
Hickey has said he asked the Senate’s staff how they would have handled a similar matter several years ago and that members indicated they would allow the senators to repay the money they were incorrectly paid, and Flowers and Garner agreed to repay the Senate what they were incorrectly reimbursed.
Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis has temporarily replaced Flowers on the Senate Ethics Committee. Senate ethics rules state that if the respondent or claimant of an ethics complaint is a member of the ethics committee, the Senate president pro tempore or his designee, or the minority party leader or his designee, is required to serve in lieu of the respondent member or claimant.
Besides Hammer and Ingram, the other members of the Senate Ethics Committee include Sens. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith; Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro; Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock; and Dave Wallace, R-Leachville.
State senators have been largely reluctant to talk about ethics complaints until after the Senate Ethics Committee takes action on the complaints since the state Senate in January 2021 changed its ethics rules to state that “A Senator shall not make an allegation of a violation verbally in a meeting of the Senate or by any other means outside the [ethics complaint] petition and committee process of these rules.”
A senator who improperly brings an allegation of a violation may be subject to any of the penalties set forth in the Senate’s ethic rules under a rule change adopted in January 2021. These penalties range from a letter of caution to expulsion.
The Senate’s rule change in January 2021 came more than two months after Garner publicly announced to senators that he was filing an ethics complaint against Sen. Jim Hendren, who is now an independent from Sulphur Springs. Garner’s announcement surprised members of the Senate Ethics Committee and many other senators.
In November 2020, the state Senate initially dismissed Garner’s ethics complaint against Hendren as frivolous.
The Senate Ethics Committee later held a closed hearing on Garner’s complaint and recommended the Senate dismiss the complaint before Garner withdrew the complaint.
Garner’s ethics complaint against Hendren was the first ethics complaint filed against a state senator under the overhauled ethics rules, which the Senate adopted in June 2018 at the urging of Hendren. The state Senate overhauled its rules to create a committee on ethics, prohibit senators from certain activities involving conflicts of interest and require more disclosure of other conflicts and their personal finances. These changes came after federal investigations in the previous few years led to the convictions of several former state lawmakers.
In June of 2018, Clark was the only audible dissenter to the Senate’s overhauled ethics rules, saying he agreed with most of the revised rules but he believed the changes were rushed through.
“The people who did wrong knew they were doing wrong. There didn’t have to be any more rules for them to know what they were doing [was wrong],” Clark said at that time.
On June 15 of this year, Hickey filed the second and third ethics complaints against state senators under these revised ethics rules.
He filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, for Johnson signing in Clark’s name on the sign-in sheet for reimbursement at the Senate Boys State committee meeting June 3 that Clark didn’t attend. He also filed a complaint against Clark for asking Johnson to seek reimbursement from public funds for Clark for that meeting. The Senate didn’t pay the $155 per diem to Clark for that meeting at the behest of Senate leaders.
On July 21, the Senate approved the Ethics Committee’s findings that Clark and Johnson violated the Senate’s ethics rules as well as the committee’s recommended punishments.
At that time, Clark told senators he made a mistake and it won’t happen again.
The Senate’s punishment for Clark was to strip him of his committee chairman and vice chairman posts and block his eligibility for per diem and mileage reimbursement for the rest of this year. He also was reprimanded by the Senate, and future Senate president pro tempores are not to consider Clark for appointment to serve on Boys State, Girls State or the Senate Ethics Committee.
Clark had been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vice chairman of the Legislative Council Review Subcommittee, co-chairman of the Legislative Council Occupational Licensing Review Subcommittee, and chairman of the Child Maltreatment Investigations Oversight Committee.