You might remember the Phillips County constable who was elected and decided to take office early last year, having an arsenal of weapons that could be useful in enforcing the law in his township. The problem was that he is a convicted felon who technically is not allowed to possess such guns.
In 1985, he was convicted of theft by receiving in Phillips County and placed on five years’ probation. Two years later, according to federal prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to two counts of grand larceny in Jackson County, Miss., then was sentenced to five years in prison. First, though, he was sent back to Arkansas for revocation of his earlier probation.
The question is: How could the good people of St. Francis Township elect such a guy?
And the answer is: Easy.
Arkansas doesn’t have any means of checking to see if a person who files for public office is actually qualified for that office — or, as in James Weldon King’s case, disqualified from holding public office.
The 50-year-old King, of Helena-West Helena, paid his filing fee to run as a Democrat, won a primary race and had no opponent in the general election.
Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t wait until January to start discharging his duties as a duly elected law enforcement officer. He started sporting a uniform, badge, utility belt and gun long before that and driving a car with a constable decal attached, even while taking his child to school.
Somehow that got the attention of federal authorities, who have been working for many months in Phillips County on drug cases, and someone checked into King. That’s when his criminal background was found, and now he faces a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm — actually more than 30 of them, including some machine guns, if the federal warrant is correct.
That doesn’t keep him from making his rounds as a constable, but a federal judge decided he needed to remain in custody. Regardless of the federal case against him, the county will have to file a lawsuit to remove him from office.
Now state Rep. Frederick Love, D-Little Rock, would like to clean up the state’s procedures for qualifying people for public office. On Feb. 28, he filed House Bill 1553, which calls for a background check on every candidate for public office, even those useless constable positions.
Ordinarily, we shouldn’t have legislation prompted by a single case, and this bill no doubt is in response to the embarrassing situation in Phillips County. But over many years of covering elections in Arkansas I’ve seen a handful of similar cases, though none of the others involved a candidate who could carry a gun as a result of being elected.
In the cases I recall the newspaper was tipped off that a certain candidate had a criminal background. The tipster may have had vested interest, but nevertheless it’s in the public interest to keep a convicted felon from holding public office.
However, that’s a pretty uncertain process. For one thing, if a candidate draws no opponent, probably no one will care enough to tip the local newspaper. And even if the newspaper does get such a tip, should it serve as the government’s “enforcer,” letting authorities know that the candidate isn’t qualified?
I’d say we certainly should, but that shouldn’t be the only barrier to the felon who wants to be elected.
HB 1553 would establish an extra step to the system of filing for public office by requiring each candidate to sign a criminal background check waiver at the same time as filing a political practices pledge. The candidate would also have to pay the required fees for conducting the check through the Arkansas State Police.
The secretary of state or county clerk would be the agency responsible for collecting the waivers, transmitting them to the ASP and then receiving the reports. The latter would have to be done within seven days.
If the candidate had ever pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony offense, or had been found guilty of a felony offense, the details would be included in the report. The county or secretary of state would then notify the candidate that he or she is “potentially unqualified to hold public office” and give the candidate a chance to withdraw.
HB 1553 doesn’t say what should happen if the candidate refuses to withdraw, so presumably the county would still have to file a challenge.
Where Love goes wrong in his proposal is to exempt the waiver and resulting report from disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Who does this protect? Why, the convicted felon, of course.
The only reports of interest to the press and other members of the public would be those of candidates with felony convictions in their past. Apparently, Love wants them to be able to withdraw from office quietly, without anyone knowing why.
That’s just wrong and presumes that a candidate like James Weldon King, who apparently lied on his filing paperwork, would be trapped by the process and wouldn’t go forward. With the FOIA exemption, no one would know anything about it until and unless the county challenged the election.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.