A lawsuit filed by the City of Little Rock against two exploratory mayoral candidates claims that the would-be challengers for the capital city’s top spot are breaking the law.
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter filed the lawsuit on behalf of the City of Little Rock, which is currently led by Mayor Mark Stodola who has not indicated if he will run for a new four-year term.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday (Jan. 18), accuses State Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, and businessman Frank Scott, Jr. of violating a city ordinance that prohibits fundraising by city candidates until June 1st of an election year. The Arkansas Ethics Commission is also listed as a defendant in the case.
Sabin filed an exploratory committee for Little Rock mayor in July 2017, while Scott filed a similar exploratory committee for Little Rock mayor in September 2017.
At issue is a city ordinance that prohibits fundraising by officially declared municipal candidates to the time period of June 1 to December 1 of an election year. Sabin and Scott contend that the exploratory committee allows them to remain undeclared while testing the waters.
The Arkansas Ethics Commission issued a letter to Sabin last year that stated it did not consider his exploratory committee to be in violation of state campaign finance laws “the Commission could enforce.” Scott also received a letter from the commission.
Thursday’s legal filing states that Sabin “is a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas, who has announced his intention to seek election as Mayor of the City of Little Rock.” Scott is listed in the lawsuit as “a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas, who has announced his intention to seek election as Mayor of the City of Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 2018 general election.” Both candidates are technically exploratory candidates.
“The City has the right to enforce a City ordinance – Little Rock, Ark., Rev. Code § 2-387 (1988) – which provides that a candidate for a municipal office cannot solicit or receive campaign contributions before June 1 prior to the general election for a City office,” the lawsuit reads.
“Contributions to regular election campaigns for municipal office shall be limited to the period beginning June 1 immediately before the election and ending December 1 immediately after the election,” it further states.
SABIN, SCOTT, STODOLA REACT
The two potential mayoral candidates issued statements shortly after receiving the city’s lawsuit accusing Mayor Stodola as the catalyst for the legal action. Stodola also provided comments to Talk Business & Politics.
“I am disappointed in Mayor Stodola and his decision to proceed with costly litigation, particularly after the State Ethics Commission confirmed the validity of my exploratory committee back in October,” said Scott. “Rather than focus on the rise in violent crime or stagnant job growth in Little Rock, Stodola seeks to obstruct the democratic process by attempting to prevent potential challengers from forming exploratory committees.”
The Warwick Sabin for Mayor Exploratory Committee said, “The three-term incumbent mayor is utilizing taxpayer-funded government resources to sue his potential political challengers because he wants to maintain a rigged system instead of allowing a level playing field. Warwick Sabin’s exploratory efforts continue to build momentum and he is picking up more support every day, which is why the entrenched mayor and his cronies are so desperate to stop him. This is yet another example of why we need real change in Little Rock, and Warwick Sabin will continue pressing forward to offer new energy and new ideas for our city.”
In public documents available, Sabin’s exploratory committee has raised $119,895 to date in a report filed Jan. 2, 2018. The report shows a balance of funds of $90,828.31 as of the end of December 2017.
Scott’s exploratory committee raised $63,688 as of a report filed on Jan. 8, 2018. The balance of funds on that report shows $37,863.65 as of December 2017. A representative for Scott said his committee’s fundraising has topped $75,000 when counting money received since the first of the year.
Stodola has a current carryover balance from his 2014 election of $78,411.94 in his most recent campaign finance report, which covers 2016 and was filed on January 31, 2017.
Scott added, “Little Rock faces real challenges, and none of those challenges involve my exploratory committee, which has followed applicable state law. Despite Stodola’s desperate attempt, I remain encouraged by the broad-based support my exploratory committee has received across the city. We are exploring a run for mayor because Little Rock is in desperate need of bold leadership. Let’s embrace those who bring new ideas to the table rather than try to silence them in favor of the status quo. Dismissing this lawsuit and repealing the ordinance are the only way to ensure that every Little Rock voter has their voice heard as we approach another city election.”
Mayor Stodola issued this statement from his office on Thursday afternoon:
“The city attorney, as directed by the Board of Directors, is seeking to have those who are running for mayor or a board of director position follow a law that was crafted to prohibit undue influence due to the unique nature of a governing body that is always in session. It makes sense to request a formal and unbiased legal opinion before the unprecedented fundraising effort continues. I remain committed to working hard on behalf of the citizens of Little Rock. I intend to follow the law and so should candidates Sabin and Scott.”
In a follow up request from Talk Business & Politics, Stodola further stated:
“I intend to follow the laws of the city regarding when you can raise money for a campaign, a good government law that has been in place for 29 years. Both Sabin and Scott were given a copy of the law by the city attorney and have chosen to ignore it. The lawsuit was filed because the city board passed a motion for a declaratory judgment to determine if the Ethics Commission was ignoring their responsibility to follow the law. The campaigns of Sabin and Scott are apparently included to ensure once a decision is made that it applies to their campaigns. Check with the city attorney for more information. I intend to follow the law and they should also. If they would choose to circumvent this law, what else would they circumvent? Everyone needs to be on an even playing field.”