A state legislative committee reacted with a collective yawn last week when presented with two audits showing incompetent record-keeping by employees of the taxpayers.
One of those was a 48-page investigative report prepared for the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee after a review of policies, procedures and transactions in the Division of University Advancement at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. The committee accepted the report and promptly shut off further hearing.
That’s a complicated issue which must be reserved for another column or two, but the other audit is clear and simple and points to an obvious need: Lt. Gov. Mark Darr should resign.
Some members of the Joint Auditing Committee asked questions of Darr, but not a single lawmaker offered a hint of criticism.
The audit, which examined the lieutenant governor’s office for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, said Darr had received $9,298 in improper mileage reimbursements for more than 22,000 personal vehicle miles. He also made personal purchases totaling $2,339 on his state government credit cards, improperly paid twice for lodging in Little Rock (a total of $205) with state funds, was reimbursed $169 in excess of coach airfare for travel outside the state and improperly reimbursed a former member of his staff for providing Darr with transportation from Springdale to Little Rock.
A Republican who entered the office in January 2011, Darr also failed to document expenditures totaling $2,755.
Not counting the latter, which is certainly questionable, that’s at least $12,175 in taxpayer money spent by Darr for personal use.
Lieutenant governor is considered a part-time job, for which the annual salary is $41,896. The office, which also has four full-time employees, has a total budget of $380,000, including $16,695 for conferences and other business travel. But no state constitutional officer except the governor is compensated or reimbursed for living expenses in Little Rock or for travel to and from Little Rock.
In 2010 a controversy over the assignment of state vehicles to constitutional officers ended that practice.
Yet one member of the audit committee was incredulous that the lieutenant governor doesn’t get a mileage reimbursement like lawmakers do and isn’t provided with overnight lodging when he is in Little Rock.
Fortunately, Arkansas needs its lieutenant governor only when the Legislature is in session. His only assigned constitutional duty, as long as the governor is in the state, is to preside over Senate meetings. And actually the Senate elects a president pro tempore to handle most leadership functions.
For his part, Darr says he didn’t know better.
In his audit response he said he had taken steps to reimburse the state for $1,137, which is just part of the personal expenses he put on his credit cards.
“I was not aware of the constitutional provisions …,” he said. “Had this been brought to our attention earlier, I can assure you it would have been addressed properly. … I acknowledge the errors I have committed, and I am endeavoring to make full restitution.”
He also attempted to shift the blame, pointing out that the state Auditor’s office is in charge of reviewing and paying all travel reimbursement requests and office expenses. He said in his almost three years in office no findings had been issued of improper expenses.
While it’s true that the first legislative audit of his tenure, which covered the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, had no red flags, that was only Darr’s first six months in office. And the critical audit released last week covered a period ending more than a year ago.
Legislative audits have a time lag, and we can only assume the audit for the year ending this June 30 will pinpoint similar improper expenses since Darr didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.
In the 2012 audit, the examiners said Darr should reimburse the state $9,836 for excess travel reimbursements and expenses, in addition to the $1,137 already reimbursed. They recommended that the lieutenant governor and his staff obtain training so they can comply with the law.
Darr may also have tax problems since the $9,298 in improper travel reimbursements was not reported as income on his IRS Form W-2.
The quiet reaction to Darr’s actions is in sharp contrast to the uproar caused by revelations this year that then-state Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, had converted more than $53,000 in campaign funds to personal use. Bookout was forced to resign and is paying the full amount back to his contributors.
In one way, Darr’s transgressions are worse. While Bookout misspent private funds donated to his campaign organization, Darr misused taxpayer money.
Further, Darr is still on the hook with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which is investigating whether he violated several laws by using campaign funds as personal income and using his office, telephone and state credit cards to help retire his 2010 campaign debt.
When confronted, both pleaded ignorance of the law. But that’s not what our government expects of its citizens, and it’s certainly not what we should expect of our public officials. Using public money for personal use is wrong, and anyone trusted with a high public office should know that. Mark Darr should resign.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.