By Max Brantley
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Arkansas Times Blog) - Blogger Russ Racop reports that the Arkansas Ethics Commission voted 3-2 Friday to find that Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones had unintentionally violated the state ethics law in giving $300,000 worth of free trips to Cowboy games to North Little Rock police officers. He'll get a warning letter to that effect.
Jones appeared before the commission and, in what Racop said were emotional remarks, said he didn't view the gifts as a reward for police work but to send a positive message of the work police do outside of their normal jobs. Jones' lawyer, Catherine Dolan, a Cowboy staffer and former lawyer in Little Rock, also argued that Jones believed the North Little Rock City Council resolution declaring the gifts official compensation made them proper. Racop pointed out that the arrangements for the free tickets, hotel and travel costs were made before the Council resolution was adopted. The Council resolution came after Racop raised questions about the propriety of the gift.
According to Racop, Commissioner Sybil Hampton, former director of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, made the motion for a finding of an unintentional violation. Joining Hampton in the vote were commissioners Ashley Younger, a Little Rock lawyer, and Alice Eastwood, a lawyer and ethics officer for Walmart. Voting no were former Republican state Sen. Sharon Trusty of Russellville, and Tony Juneau, a lawyer from Rogers.
A letter of warning to Jones was the only action possible under the law. He had refused a negotiated settlement offer given to the Fraternal Order of Police president Michael Gibbons. Jones said he didn't want to settle because he didn't think he'd done wrong.
When Gibbons settled, the document acknowledged a law violation, but said Gibbons had "good cause" to believe it was allowable and he didn't even get a warning letter.
State law prohibits gifts to public employees for performance of work. A first violation carries a warning letter.
Racop said he didn't intend to "get police officers in trouble. I didn't even try to stop them from going to the game. It was just the rule of law, something that shouldn't be given."
The staff of the Ethics Commission came to that same conclusion in making a finding of probable cause to believe a violation had occurred. Jones' refusal to accept a settlement put it before the commission for final adjudication. Even staff remarks praised Jones' good works in arguing for a finding of violation, Racop said.
It developed in the hearing today that Gibbons had talked to Dolan, a former prosecutor in Pulaski County, at a Cowboys game and her introduction of Gibbons to Jones put the gift in motion. 120 of 178 officers took trips, along with various friends and family at a cost estimated to be at least $300,000.
Ethics commissioners are appointed by the governor (Eastwood), lieutenant governor (Younger), House speaker (Juneau), attorney general and Senate president pro tem (Trusty). Hampton is the only commissioner appointed by a Democrat, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who coincidentally argued early on that there was nothing improper about the gifts and who represented Gibbons.
Important bottom line: There's now precedent on gift giving, whether to cops, mayors or pollution inspectors.
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