State investigating mayor after complaint from alderwoman's son

The Arkansas Ethics Commission is investigating Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth on assorted accusations listed within a complaint filed by a son of a city council member who finished third in a nine-candidate November 2012 mayoral election that Hollingsworth won without a runoff.

Stanley Walker, owner of Aisha’s Fish and Chicken at 1106 W. 16th Ave., filed the complaint Oct. 11. He is a son of Ward 1 Alderwoman Thelma Walker, who is also a subject of an AEC probe.

Stanley Walker is accusing Hollingsworth of violating several state laws pertaining to political candidates and elected officials. He wrote in his complaint that the reason he filed the action was the mayor’s “abuse of office, harassment, (and) defamation of character,” primarily with her handling of matters related to Walker’s delinquency in paying a 2-percent food-sales tax to the city. He was in arrears by up to $5,000 at the time, officials estimated.

In an Oct. 17 letter to Hollingsworth, AEC Director Graham F. Sloan related seven essential allegations from Stanley Walker’s complaint. Walker’s contentions are that the mayor and/or her campaign officials:

• Violated state law by using her elected position in seeking to force the closure of Aisha’s because of Walker’s tax delinquency, with Walker resenting being identified in media reports on the matter;

• Failed to file a final election report concerning her 2012 campaign;

• Filed an incomplete contributions report;

• Improperly reported a $600 contribution from an unknown contributor;

• Improperly paid cash for a fundraiser by appropriating $1,000 to a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff-related “tailgate advertising” expense;

• Failed to disclose any payments to campaign workers; and

• Failed to state particulars and show receipts for $35,678.58 listed in an “other advertising” category of campaign expenditures.

The mayor admitted Wednesday afternoon that she made a “mistake” in not filing a final election report, but was already working on correcting the oversight. She added that her accountant is also looking at the other financial points “to make certain that we have everything as it should be.”

She noted, too, that none of her campaign workers were compensated.

When asked about Walker’s charge concerning her role in leading an effort to collect unpaid hamburger tax revenues, the mayor said: “I regret that Mr. Walker apparently thinks that I shouldn’t perform my elected duties when it comes to certain tax-delinquent businesses or individuals, but I have no intentions of neglecting my obligation to the citizens of our city,” she said.

“The vast majority of our citizens proudly pay their taxes, and those who don’t should be held accountable. I not only have the authority to help ensure collection of taxes due the city, I have a responsibility.

“The (ethics) commission is doing its job in this matter, and they’re great to work with,” she added. “My response to the commission, the media and the public will be anchored in total transparency. That’s what I’ve promised from the moment I started my campaign, and I want to serve notice that I won’t be bullied in doing the job I was elected to do.”

Thelma Walker is a member of the advertising and promotion commission, which helps in overseeing hamburger and hotel tax matters, including the issuing and revoking of related occupation licenses.

Stanley Walker’s business license for Aisha’s was revoked in June for his non-payment, although the restaurant continued to operate. Walker said he believed city authorities were pursuing him because he is African-American and a son of the alderwoman, who is in frequent disagreement with the mayor.

Following Stanley Walker’s payment of roughly $550 in back taxes Aisha’s license was renewed by then-City Collector Albert Ridgell in July. Ridgell has since been fired twice by Hollingsworth, once on July 31 and again on Oct. 15.

Ridgell was reinstated in an Aug. 23 special called council meeting when Thelma Walker was joined by Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Steven Mays and George Stepps in providing a necessary six votes to override Hollingsworth’s decision. An effort to overturn the second dismissal failed at Monday night’s council session when Holcomb changed his mind and united with Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly in opposition.

Ridgell was first fired for what Hollingsworth deemed “unsatisfactory work performance that has been documented for some time now.” Hollingsworth based the second dismissal on insubordination.

In addition to Thelma Walker, Brown and Stepps are currently under the AEC microscope on complaints filed by Stu Soffer of White Hall. Soffer — a Republican member of the Jefferson County and Arkansas election commissions — is asserting that Walker and Stepps compromised themselves as elected officials by supporting Ridgell’s reinstatement as compensation for Ridgell’s favors in matters related to Ridgell’s authority as city collector. Cited issues involving Stepps were separate from developments involving the Walkers.