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Public thievery should bring more than a slap on the wrist for cheating senators

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Austin Gelder will be filing a straight report on a Senate committee’s recommendation today to deprive Sens. Mark Johnson and Alan Clark of committee leadership roles and per diem for the rest of this calendar year on what looks to me like simple thievery of tax dollars.

It’s not enough based on the committee’s public findings. They should be removed from office. Johnson submitted a request for Clark to be paid per diem and mileage for attending a meeting that Johnson knew Clark didn’t attend. Clark acknowledged the scam.

Among the many lingering questions: Did this committee review whether this was a one-time event? We don’t know. The committee’s days of deliberation were in secret.

I know this:

Article 5 of the Constitution states “no person … convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime shall be eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office or trust or profit in this state.”

That provision has barred many candidates from the ballot for violations as trivial as a $5 hot check to a Chinese restaurant. True, neither Johnson nor Clark has been convicted. Yet.

A day for not attending a meeting is worth more than $55 per diem for someone living within 50 miles of Little Rock and $155 per day for someone living farther away. They also get 58.5 cents per mile for auto mileage. Clark says he lives in Lonsdale, which Google says is roughly 38 miles from Little Rock. Johnson lives in Ferndale, roughly 16 miles away. I am not immediately sure of what per diem rate the two claim.

The Senate, which will make the final decision, has the power to expel cheaters. The committee didn’t recommend that. An ethics crusader could offer a substitute motion under the rules, but I doubt that will happen.

It might be arguable that the rules are unconstitutional when it comes to expulsion. A senator might argue that power is open only to voters at the polls or through impeachment and trial. Expulsion wouldn’t prevent them from running again and, who knows, perhaps winning. The Supreme Court tossed Judge L.T. Simes off the bench a few years ago and voters sent him right back.

But I guess you take what you can get. The Committee was stacked with Republicans, whose normal commandment prohibits talking bad about other Republicans. And Clark and Johnson had clout. Clark is chair of the child maltreatment investigations oversight committee, the Judiciary Committee (emphasis intentional), the Legislative Council’s occupational licensing review subcommittee and the potent Council Review Committee. Johnson is vice-chair of the Joint Budget Claims committee, the Legislative Council Charitable, Penal and Correction Institutions Committee and Joint Energy.

Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley has received complaints about the Johnson-Clark scam. We hope he takes a serious look. He might be able to investigate records that would indicate whether or not this was a common practice by some members of the Senate or a one-off.

There are a lot of names to call a senator who signs the roll for a senator who isn’t present and for a senator who knowingly sought money for a meeting he didn’t attend. Start with dirtbag.

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