Conversation focused on ethics at a legislative forum Thursday (Oct. 12) at Rogers City Hall, as candidates for four races considered fallout from the General Improvement Funds (GIF) scandal that involved Springdale’s Ecclesia College, and ultimately sent three men to prison.
Seats in the city’s council chambers and lobby were full to hear the positions of four Democratic challengers and three Republican incumbents.
With rare bipartisan solidarity, the candidates decried the hidden nature of GIF and agreed the state should be able to recover lost funds. On Wednesday, the day before the forum, the former president of Ecclesia was the last to report to prison — he was convicted of funneling cash bribes to lawmakers in exchange for $715,000 in general improvement fund grants.
Gayatri Agnew of Bentonville, who is senior director for Walmart Giving and the Democratic challenger in District 93, said she has a deep personal passion for disclosure and transparency in government. “I give philanthropic money away every day through a process called due diligence,” Agnew said. “Transparency is what makes government work.”
Agnew is challenging incumbent State Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, a Realtor with Gibson Real Estate. Dotson said he opposes the GIF process, but has seen the grants support important agencies such as the Children’s Advocacy Center and Ozark Guidance.
“I support the call of our governor to try and recover funds, now that criminal proceedings are over,” Dotson said. “They betrayed our trust, in the legislature, and the public’s trust.”
District 93 includes a large portion of Bentonville and is primarily west of Interstate 49.
District 3 State Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said she’d like to see legislator Jon Woods, who was convicted in the Ecclesia scandal, reimburse the state. “Those complicit in the misappropriation should pay the money back,” she said, although Woods was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Bledsoe said as a legislator, she voted against establishing GIF grants because of their nature.
“Outside of that little group no one could have known what was going on,” she said.
Bledsoe’s challenger, attorney and former judge John Comstock, said it’s improper that only senators can file ethics complaints against other senators.
“Wouldn’t doctors and lawyers love that? Any general citizen can file against them. It ought to be that way in the legislative body,” Comstock said. “Yes, this issue is about secret bad actors but it’s a process legislators created. The legislature created a process that was ripe for disaster.”
District 3 extends from Pea Ridge to Gateway and south to Bethel Heights, including much of Rogers and Lowell.
In District 96, incumbent State Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, is a consultant seeking his third term in the House. District 96 includes much of eastern Benton County, including portions of Rogers, Lowell, Avoca, Garfield and Gateway.
Hodges said he is glad the GIF program ended, and he prefers grants to be issue specific with transparent processes. “The bad actors should have to pay restitution,” he said.
Hodges said GIF was in place during his first term, $30,000 for each house district, and he did like having funds available for important causes such as rural fire departments.
His Democratic challenger, Christie Craig, is retired from Walmart and completing her master’s degree at the University of Arkansas.
Budgets reflect priorities, Craig said, and research should be undertaken to uncover where and how the legislature spent the GIF.
“True servant leadership is difficult and exhausting work, but that’s the job,” she told a reporter.
Democrat Jene Huffman-Gilreath was disappointed that the incumbent she’s challenging did not appear Thursday night. Huffman-Gilreath is shared services manager for Rogers Water Utilities and is vying for the District 94 seat.
“There should’ve been transparency,” she said, referring to the GIF scandal. “Without boundaries people find a way to allow greed to take hold. I was appalled that people who want to restrict government would give government funds to a private religious school. That money should be used to benefit the majority.”
State Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, did not attend the forum and sent a spokesperson to give an initial statement. She is seeking her third term in the House and works as an advocate for children and crime victims.
District 94 consists largely of the city of Rogers.
As a final question, a member of the audience asked whether the participants would support legislation to protect the right of LGBTQ residents in Benton County, as Thursday was National Coming Out Day.
Bledsoe emphasized she would not want to discriminate against anyone.
“Discrimination is not anything I would be a part of,” Bledsoe said. “But what are we talking about, shared bathrooms? No, we don’t need to make people feel different, but what else does that mean?”
Her challenger, Comstock, agreed.
“I’m 68; my views have evolved over time,” Comstock said. “I didn’t understand the LGBTQ community when I was younger. Now I realize people are people and they are who they are. I want to absolutely support legislation that would allow them to be on equal footing, but I agree you need to know the particulars.”
Dotson said he did not support special rights for any group.
His challenger, Agnew, was strongly affirmative.
“We live in a nation where human rights are valued,” she said. “Gay people in Arkansas have no legal right to adopt and can be terminated [from their employment] because they are gay. That’s not the kind of state I want to live in.”
Hodges would not support additional regulations.
“I don’t see that many examples where this is an issue…I think we are a welcoming community,” Hodges said. “If you were to do something like in Fayetteville, where the agenda from national organizations came in — you saw it tear that town apart.”
His challenger, Craig, said absolutely she would support legislation. “There are no housing protections. It’s overdue. It’s needed.”
Huffman-Gilreath said she is a pastor’s daughter and her faith community is Christian.
“I don’t want anyone discriminated against. If we’re using Christ as our example, Jesus didn’t discriminate; he never mentioned it,” she said.
The forum was sponsored by the government affairs division of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. Election Day is Nov. 6 and early voting will begin Oct. 22.