In proclaiming one’s innocence, a narrow path must be walked. To one extreme, there’s Shakespeare’s famous line: “The lady doth protest too much…” an admonition against launching a defense so grand that it implies guilt. Then there’s the other peril, as described by noted poet, Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Neither shield provides much cover. Only those persons whose affairs are absolutely transparent and unguarded curry much favor among a skeptical public. Sadly, that kind of openness is an all too rare political commodity.
These are exactly the horns upon which embattled Pine Bluff City Council member Thelma Walker now finds herself. As recently reported by The Commercial, Walker is under investigation by the Arkansas Ethics Commission for possibly violating election laws during her 2010 city council and 2012 mayoral campaigns.
According to a letter outlining the allegations, Walker failed to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports for the 2012 and 2010 elections and for her 2010 pre-election contribution and expenditure reports.
In her 2012 statement of financial interest, Walker did not report her position as director of an adult day care. She also failed to list creditors, investments and bank accounts, and did not have a notary witness her signing of the document, stated the complaint.
Further, it is alleged that she “used her position” as a council member “to obtain special privileges or exemptions” for her son — Stanley (incorrectly identified within the complaint as Albert) Walker — with his restaurant, Aisha’s Fish and Chicken, at 1106 West 16th Ave. Stanley Walker is in arrears on payment to the city of the merchant-collected 2-percent hamburger tax revenues by several thousand dollars and was issued an occupation license by City Collector Albert Ridgell in July despite having made only small payments toward the debt.
Lastly, the complaint alleges that Walker, who is also a council representative on the city’s advertising and promotion commission, “used her position” to obtain special privileges or exemptions” for Ridgell, who “improperly issued” the business permit to Stanley Walker. The complainant charges that the favor toward Ridgell occurred as a result of Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s July termination of Ridgell for “poor job performance.” Ridgell appealed his firing to the council, and Thelma Walker “did not recuse herself from voting” for his reinstatement, providing a decisive sixth vote on the July issue.
While Walker stated that these allegations are “not true,” she provided the Commercial with no evidence to counter them. Rather, she focused on the person originating the complaint, Stu Soffer. Soffer, a White Hall resident, is the Republican Party representative on the Jefferson County Election Commission. He is also a member of the state election commission.
With a grim predictability, Walker immediately discounted Soffer’s complaint by stating, “You can say that people can’t believe anything he says against me because he’s a racist.”
Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to see Walker provide reporters with exculpatory documents and other evidence instead of playing the race card? Sadly, we know that’s not how things tend work in Pine Bluff city government. If you don’t like how things worked out, just malign the messenger.
It’s time we get past that framing. This situation is reducible to pretty simple record keeping. Either Walker can prove she’s innocent or she can’t. By choosing instead to focus on Soffer’s putative motivations, she makes no case — at least none of substance.
Lastly, we’ll restate something that we’re obliged to recite at least once a month: The appearance of impropriety is just as damning as actual impropriety. We continue to be amazed that our local “leaders” miss that point.