Beebe: Martin’s improper use of outside lawyers weakens public trust

LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday said the flap over Secretary of State Mark Martin’s hiring of outside counsel without prior approval has made all of the state’s constitutional officers look bad and compared it to former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner’s legal troubles.

“It’s like the Shoffner thing,” Beebe told reporters. “Any time you’ve got a statewide constitutional officer that does something like this, it really causes all of us to look like we’ve got problems.”

A Pulaski County circuit judge ruled Monday that Martin had not followed state law when he hired, without the approval of the governor or attorney general, two outside lawyers to defend him in a freedom of information lawsuit filed by liberal blogger Matt Campbell. The judge removed the lawyers from the case in a ruling that Martin said he would appeal.

The state Democratic Party issued a statement Monday criticizing Martin for having routinely used taxpayer dollars to hire outside counsel without proper approval, calling it an “indictable offense” that should be referred to a prosecutor.

Violating the law on hiring outside counsel can be punished with a fine of $200 to $2,000 and removal from office upon conviction.

Shoffner is scheduled to stand trial in federal court on March 3 on six counts of extortion, one count of attempted extortion and seven counts of accepting a bribe as an agent of state government. She is accused of accepting $36,000 in bribes to steer most of the state’s bond business to one broker.

Beebe said Tuesday, “The trust of the people in their elected officials is something that you have to constantly try to promote. And you know, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you see things like what happened to our treasurer and now what’s happening here with the secretary of state that impacts that trust.”

Beebe said the “law is clear.”

“You’ve got to get the A.G.’s permission and you’ve got to get the governor’s permission when you hire outside counsel,” he said. “There’s good reason sometimes to do that. Many constitutional officers have lawyers on staff that do a lot of legal work … and sometimes you use those. But if you’re going to go outside and hire outside counsel for specialized reasons or conflict-of-interest reasons or any other reasons, there’s a procedure for that, and the Legislature set that up in statute a long, long time ago and you need to follow that procedure.”

Asked if he believed Martin should face prosecution, Beebe said he would defer on that point to the proper authorities.

The Democratic Party also said Monday that Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson should return payment he received when he represented Martin last year in a lawsuit over redistricting.

Asked Tuesday if he agreed, Beebe said, “I doubt if an illegal exaction lawsuit would actually be addressed against Mr. Hutchinson. I think it would be addressed against the secretary of state’s office and the state of Arkansas, and that the money would come from taxpayer funds, so you’d end up paying twice.”

Beebe and McDaniel also were defendants in the redistricting lawsuit and presented a different defense from Martin, who maintained that he had no involvement in the redistricting plan that Beebe and McDaniel approved. A federal judge ruled in favor of the board and upheld the plan.

Beebe said Tuesday he did not voice any concerns at the time about Martin’s hiring of Hutchinson because he did not know then that Martin had failed to consult with McDaniel.

“I know that he had a different position than we did, so it was fair to assume that he felt like there would have been a conflict of interest for the same lawyer and consequently went out and got his own lawyer, but I didn’t think much about whether he’d talked to the A.G. about it at the time,” the governor said.

A spokesman for McDaniel did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment. A spokesman for Martin said the office was preparing a response to Beebe’s remarks.

Meanwhile, two of Martin’s staff attorneys, Martha Adcock and A.J. Kelly, entered appearances Monday in Pulaski County Circuit Court as replacements for the outside lawyers who were removed in the lawsuit filed by Campbell. The lawsuit accuses Martin of failing to adequately respond to a request for public records under the state Freedom of Information Act.