The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a great summary over the weekend of what happened at the Joint Audit Committee meeting on Friday. You can read it here (warning: paywall).
To summarize: lawmakers were scheduled to hear testimony from Brad Choate, a former University of Arkansas employee who was fired after his department came up $4.2 million dollars in the red. Since his firing, there have been allegations of cover-ups, as well as allegations of covering up the cover-ups. Some observers have noted that U of A Chancellor David Gearhart and former spokesman John Diamond appeared to give starkly contradictory sworn testimony before a legislative committee earlier this year. (To state the obvious, when two people provide starkly contradictory sworn testimony, both statements cannot be true.)
The matter of the $4.2 million deficit and alleged cover-up was referred to investigators; the results of that investigation were supposed to be the topic of discussion of the Friday hearing. However, shortly after the meeting convened, Senator Bill Sample (R-Hot Springs) moved that the committee accept the report. One might see this as an effort to squelch the testimony before it had even begun. Sample’s motion failed on a voice vote, but after a roll call vote, the motion carried (see the full roll call here). Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), co-chair of the committee, then asked for further comments on the report — if there were no objections. At that point, Sample objected, so Hammer adjourned the meeting.
Since the meeting on Friday, Sample has been unresponsive to media inquiries. However, I was able to land an interview with him yesterday. I asked him why he made the motion to accept the report and if he intended to end the discussion. Here’s what he said:
We asked the prosecuting attorney to take it and review that. And if there was — it was his job to prosecute. I read the report several times and I came away with the conclusion that the prosecuting attorney — in his report, he said that there was no fraud and there was no intent to fraud and that no money was missing. It was a simple case of trying to operate on a cash system and count on an accrual system — that don’t work. So, whenever I made the motion — and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Chairman Hammer because I had written him a letter over my concerns over how they were handling the matter — and he and Mr. King … chose not to answer it and Mr. Hammer answered it in a rather curt little note … about 6 or 7 weeks after I had written him.
I made the motion — actually didn’t make a motion, I just said ‘I move to accept the report as reviewed.’ And even went on to say that if we accept the motion, it wouldn’t preclude, it wouldn’t stop any testimony. Apparently, he became rattled and kindly challenged me if anyone would take and object to it, he’d just stop the meeting. So I objected. I had not planned on shutting the meeting down or anything else.
Sample expounded on his belief that Hammer mishandled the meeting:
Other people that chair meetings know the same thing that I know: if I had been running the meeting, what I’d done is say ‘Senator Sample, your objections have been noted. We’re going to have testimony.’ And went on and that would’ve been the end of it but he didn’t do that … I mean, everybody thought that the meeting was going to proceed. I don’t know of anybody in there — and to dispel another rumor: I didn’t discuss what I was going to say to anyone. nobody in that room knew what I was going to say.
I’m not going to talk bad about Mr. Hammer, it was just unfortunate that he didn’t recognize how to handle that situation. I think there’s plans being made to have another meeting. Actually, the testimony that he was wanting really didn’t belong in audit — it probably ought to be handled in JPR [Joint Performance Review] because that’s the committee that has the authority to take and review how state agencies or how anything like that is handled. It’s my understanding … one of these days they’re going to have a meeting.
Considering Senator Sample mentioned Rep. Hammer several times by name (without “talking bad about him,” of course!), I reached out to Rep. Hammer for his side of the story. Hammer said he didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with Sample, but said the record of the meeting will speak for itself:
I’m not going to say this in direct response to what he said because I don’t want to get into a he said-he said deal, but I will tell you that there’s going to be a hard copy transcript that‘s going to come out on the meeting and people can decide for themselves on how the meeting was conducted. I don’t think there was any other way for the meeting to go on the basis of the way the conversation was taken. There was a motion that was put on the floor to accept the report, there was a second; then the motion was allowed to be discussed — it was debated back and forth rather heavily, as you know. And then I took the vote. I could not discern — sometimes people project their voices louder than others. I called it that the motion failed. There was enough that asked for a roll call so, as per the rules and guidelines, I took the roll vote and then after that — and at that point, if you’ll historically look — discussion on that subject is done because you filed the report. As a matter of courtesy, I asked if there was any discussion. I would allow discussion if no one objected and I didn’t even have to do that. Traditionally, after a report is filed, it’s done. That’s why you make a motion to file a report — because whoever makes a motion believes we’ve heard all we need to hear about a matter and we need to file a report and move on. I didn’t make that motion.
As for how he handled the meeting — or how he might’ve handled it differently — Hammer said:
My job as committee chair is not to invoke what I may personally want. My job is just to move things along and to honor the intent of the committee. I think everything I did honored the intent of the committee as represented by the votes of the committee.
Once the report was filed and the motion was discussed and it was voted on, you could hear conversation but you’re not going to be able to take any action so why hear conversation? In the short time that I’ve been there — three years — I can’t remember a time … that a committee received a report, that a committee voted to file a report, it was voted on, filed and then you continued to have discussion on the subject matter of the report that you just filed. That doesn’t even make sense.
Hammer said he floated the option of more discussion (without objection) to give the committee every opportunity to discuss the subject. However, when Sample objected, he felt obligated to end the discussion as he said he would, in order to honor the wishes of the committee.
Hammer said he will be releasing the full transcript of the meeting shortly and encouraged anyone who is interested to read it for themselves: “People can read for themselves, based on the content of the actual transcript off of the audio recording…and determine whether I handled it fairly or not.”
At this point, it is unclear whether or not the issue will come back before the Audit Committee. Some lawmakers, such as Senator Sample, speculate that it may be brought before the Joint Performance Review committee instead. Other lawmakers believe it should be brought back to the Audit Committee. Either way, I think it’s safe to say this is not the end of this story.