The Northwest Arkansas political action group that came under fire from Gov. Asa Hutchinson for recent campaign contributions to legislative races has responded directly to the state’s chief executive with pointed criticisms of its own.
Last week, Hutchinson offered his first public criticism of Conduit for Action at the central Arkansas Political Animals Club event on March 13, saying he decided to speak out against the conservative group because they are trying to control the legislature by pumping money into legislative races and influencing campaigns through programming on social media, radio and by other means.
After Hutchinson’s Political Animals’ event, the governor offered even more pointed criticism concerning his decision to speak out against the Northwest Arkansas group, co-founded by Fayetteville attorney Brenda Vassaur Taylor and Fayetteville businessman Joe Maynard.
“This has built up for some time,” Hutchinson told reporters. “We saw this a few years ago and we’ve seen it as a continued operation (as) they are funneling more money into it and expanding media operations. They are not media reporting, they are media with a mission … trying to control elections.”
‘STRATEGY OF PROJECTION’
In responding directly to the governor’s criticisms, Taylor said it is popular for “experienced politicians” to employ “the strategy of projection” to discredit an opponent.
“And it certainly fits here,” Taylor wrote. “Not only are the candidates we support outspent nearly two-to-one from contributions from (Little Rock) lobbyists and the governor, but during the last election cycle when the governor opposed our choices, his fundraiser favorites included supporting the now indicted and awaiting trial, ex-Sen. Jon Woods,” Taylor said. “And as late as January 2018, we were perhaps the sole voice asking for the resignation of now disgraced ex-Sen. Jake Files. Perhaps the Governor would list specifics regarding the un-principled and controlled we support. We can think of none.”
Taylor’s comments were in reference to the broadening federal investigation that has overshadowed the Arkansas General Assembly for more than a year over the handling of so-called GIF, or General Improvement Funds. Over the weekend, former Arkansas lawmaker Rep. Hank Wilkins of Pine Bluff was the latest state lawmaker to admit to taking a bribe from indicted lobbyist Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford of Rogers.
On Feb. 12, former Rep. Eddie Wayne Cooper, D-Melbourne, pleaded guilty in federal court for his role in a conspiracy to embezzle more than $4 million from a Springfield, Mo.-based health care charity. Cooper’s guilty plea came only weeks after Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of bank fraud, with part of the activity including use of GIF funds.
General Improvement Funds were also at the root of another investigation a year ago involving former Sen. Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, both Republicans from Springdale. Neal confessed to a kickback scheme involving GIF money, while Woods is fighting the charges.
Taylor said Conduit for Action will continue to support candidates not beholden to the special interests, “which want a financial benefit from government.”
“There are very few that can afford to run for office without paying respects to (Arkansas’) long-established structure that is directing the government policies of this state,” Taylor said. “As we find those, if their principles match those of Conduit, we are likely to support them in state legislative races.”
The Fayetteville-based PAC isn’t yet sure if it will support Hutchinson’s opponent, Jan Morgan of Hot Springs, in the Republican primary.
“We may or may not support (her), as she is not running as a legislator.”
In response to allegations raised by the Hutchinson campaign and other GOP operatives that Conduit for Action is usurping state campaign finance rules by using affiliated multiple PACs to give legislative candidates near or up to the maximum amount allowable under state law at $2,700, Taylor replied: “The legislature and the people set and reset the laws in this arena. We abide by each of them as written.”
Taylor also clarified the different entities that have been publicly identified with the Conduit for Action brand. She said references by the governor and media concerning campaign contributions should note “Commerce in Action Inc.,” instead of Conduit for Action. State campaign records show that Conduit for Action terminated its lobbying registration in July 2015.
“This is not Conduit for Action, Inc., which I assume the Governor references, but Commerce in Action, Inc.,” she said. “The media outlet he references is independent of the non-profit PAC manager and is a for profit entity now known as Conduit News which airs daily on the radio in Little Rock.”
Taylor also told Talk Business & Politics she was saddened that Hutchinson “feels the need to marginalize and attack even the slightest dissent and avoids the issues legitimately raised regarding his adherence to his stated principles vs his actions.”
“As citizens and taxpayers of Arkansas, we exercise our rights of ‘free speech’ when we point out these contradictions. As far as our positions at the Conduit organizations, they are published, clear, and available for debate with anyone. We do not feel the need to modify positions based on ambitions or threats. We are not in the business of deception or extremes. Our model is the core Republican principles and platform as lived out by small business in Arkansas.
Taylor concluded in her note to Talk Business & Politics: “We spend our money and the money of our supporters in this work. We do not seek nor receive government grants nor contracts. We are paid nothing for our time and money invested. Our payback is a better future for the next generation which includes our own children and grandchildren as well as those of the readers.”
Editor’s note: This story was intended to be posted earlier. Talk Business & Politics apologizes for the delay and any resulting inconvenience.