The Best & Worst of 2002: The Highlights and Some of the Lows of the Past 12 Months

by Arkansas Business staff  on Monday, Dec. 23, 2002 12:00 am  

Best Discovery

Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado in November announced that recoverable reserves from an offshore oil field in Malaysia had been estimated at 400 million-700 million barrels, making it one of the largest oil discoveries in southeast Asia in the past decade. The company's stock price, needless to say, reacted favorably.

Worst Discovery

Bankers, clients holding worthless checks and state securities regulators were looking for Little Rock investor M. David Howell during the first weeks of October. During part of that time, he was being treated for a substance abuse problem at the renowned Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. But his pursuers didn't know that until after Howell was found dead — cause still undetermined at press time — on Oct. 23 in a guest room at the luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Best Legal Advice

Richard T. Smith, the Hot Springs banker who co-signed promissory notes with David Howell and was the beneficiary of some of Howell's $2 million in rubber checks that Bank of America obligingly honored, hasn't responded to requests for comment.

Best Legal Advice II

Little Rock lawyer Keith Moser, the subject of a federal grand jury investigation for alleged extortion in Detroit, hasn't responded to requests for comment.

Best Career Change

Little Rock lawyers David Couch and M. Darren O'Quinn left the Dover Dixon Horne law firm and in January and formed their own firm, Couch O'Quinn PLLC, for the specific purpose of suing nursing homes on behalf of abused or neglected patients and their families. Their move came seven months after the two were on the losing side of the biggest jury verdict in Arkansas history, a $78.4 million verdict against the Rich Mountain Nursing Home at Mena.

Worst Legal Irony

In its first losing case against a nursing home in Arkansas, attorneys from Wilkes & McHugh — the Florida-based law firm that specializes in suing nursing homes — tried to convict the Atkins Nursing Home in part because staff members took a nude photo of an 83-year-old patient who later died. Defense attorneys from the Friday Eldredge & Clark firm in Little Rock explained that the photo was taken specifically to prove that the woman did not have bedsores — just in case a lawsuit was filed against the nursing home.

Worst Logic

Anne Britton, press secretary of the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women, said secretary of state candidate Charlie Daniels was "apparently opposed to women or African-Americans holding office." What prompted this astonishing conclusion? Daniels had noted that the framers of the state Constitution did not contemplate a candidacy like that of his opponent, first lady Janet Huckabee, because when it was written in 1874 women couldn't even vote.

Worst Defeat

Of the major races in the November General Election, the greatest margin of victory went to Charlie Daniels, who drummed Janet Huckabee by a margin of 62-38.

Best Surprise

Arkansas voters, naturally inclined to eliminate recessive sales taxes on groceries and over-the-counter medications, instead voted against a proposed "Axe the Tax" amendment that didn't provide for a way to replace the lost state and local funding. Expected to win handily, the Libertarian amendment went down in flames, 61-39 percent.

Best Gift to Broadcasters

The race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Republican Tim Hutchin-son and Democratic Attorney General Mark Pryor and others races brought the political dollars — more than 7 million of 'em — rollin' in. You couldn't swing a cat in Arkansas without hitting a TV set blaring Pryor's latest ad responding to Hutchinson's charges in an ad that blasted Pryor's last ad that said something or other. TV stations gave thanks after one of the worst ad slumps in recent memory.

Worst Campaign Commercials

Mike Huckabee's were slick and often funny. Mark Pryor's were slick, effective and painted him as conservative as a Democrat could be. But Jay Dickey, the former 4th District Congressman looking to be rehired, took the cake for the worst ads, unless they really were intended to be parodies of the art form. That said, it's difficult to deny the entertainment value of a demonic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross with blood red eyes lying to poor, unwitting Arkansans.

Worst Sportsmanship

It's one thing for Jay Dickey to seek an endorsement by the Pine Bluff Commercial. It was quite another thing for him to ask Warren Stephens, whose Stephens Media Group owns the paper, to order the editor to slant its news coverage in his favor. Among Dickey's requests were that editor Tom McDonald be instructed to stop publishing critical letters from Monticello gadfly Kermit Moss and "At least for a while ask me [for comment] on all [Mike] Ross [news] releases and don't ask him on mine all the time." Stephens sent Dickey to Stephens Media Group President Sherm Frederick in Las Vegas, who did instruct McDonald to endorse Dickey on the editorial page but did not agree to his blatantly unethical requests for biased news coverage.

Best Courage of His Convictions

Tom McDonald resigned as editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial rather than endorse Jay Dickey. Whether the owner of a newspaper has the right to influence its editorial positions is a matter of opinion, but McDonald followed his convictions to the end of the line.

Worst Business Plan

Even employees at Dub Snider's Connect Communications Corp. of Little Rock were worried that the company's "radially innovative" business plan constituted a fraud against Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. Connect offered 48-line, T-1 "supertrunk" lines to small businesses and nonprofits for high-speed, always-on Internet access, and even paid the $2,000 a month fee for the lines, in order to take advantage of an interconnection agreement that paid Connect 1.2 cents for every minute that the lines were connected to the Internet. Southwestern Bell, understandably, objected to paying more than $1 million a month so that Connect could provide Internet access to fewer than 300 customers. The dispute is still pending before the state Public Service Commission.

Best Timing

Bill Shirron resigned as executive director of the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System on the same March day that he learned there would be a criminal investigation of his changing of official board of trustees minutes to make it appear that a curious land swap in downtown Little Rock had been approved.

Worst Shakedown

While he was running ATRS, Bill Shirron — with the help of Little Rock real estate broker John Flake — solicited $200,000 in donations for a new classroom wing at Salem United Meth-odist Church in Benton in memory of his wife, who died in 2001. The contributors were companies that did business with ATRS.

Best Example of Chutzpah

Four months after arguing that Arkansas Business was flatly wrong in reporting that the return on investment that ATRS had received on its joint ventures with Cooper Realty Investments Inc. of Bella Vista was below par, Cooper Realty issued a capital call asking ATRS to fork over another $3.4 million on real estate holdings in Little Rock and Memphis. ATRS trustees decided not to ante up.

Best Form of Flattery

Twenty-three months after launched a mid-day e-mail newsletter of fresh business news called "Daily Report," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in November launched "Arkansas Online News Update" — also delivered mid-day and with a curiously similar design.

Best Tourism Coup

Hot Springs, having scored a publicity bonanza with the release of Bill Clinton trading cards in 2001, struck gold again this year by landing a visit from "Antiques Roadshow," the popular PBS appraisal show that is one of the most sought-after conventions in the country.

Worst Abuse of a Tax Break

Pulaski County Industrial Development Corp. of Jacksonville, whose shareholders get tax credits ostensibly for investing in local businesses, placed about 25 percent of its investments in companies incorporated in Florida. While officers of the company argued that the companies were only Florida-based on paper, state regulators said the maneuver was troubling.

Worst Paper Trail

Creditors of defunct Winburn Tile Manufacturing Co. in Little Rock were dumbfounded to learn that owner Hardy Winburn had used their invoices to draw down money from a state-guaranteed bond fund but didn't necessarily use the money to pay the bills. No one suspects that Winburn enriched himself, but when he couldn't come up with the 10 percent match for an Arkansas Development Finance Authority loan to pay for upgrades at the factory on East Ninth Street, he used subsequent invoices to pay off earlier ones. Creditors at the end of the line were out of luck.

Best Early Christmas Present

Meineke Discount Muffler Shops Inc. in November awarded Stone & Ward of Little Rock a national advertising account worth $18 million, which is more than a stocking-stuffer.

Worst End to the Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship

The firing of Little Rock Monthly's top editorial officers, Stephen Koch, editor, and Carla Koen, managing editor, the same week the publication's first edition hit newsstands in November. Publisher Russ McDonough of At Home Media Inc. cited creative differences as reasons for the personnel change. Senior editor Chris Clement will replace Koch as editor, the magazine said.

Best Addition to Little Rock Publishing

Russ McDonough and At Home Media rescued the critically acclaimed but financially failing Oxford American magazine and moved it from Mississippi to begin a new life. Issue 1 from Little Rock is due in January.

Best Place to File a Class Action Lawsuit

Well, maybe not the very best. But Arkansas is the sixth-easiest state in which to have a case certified as a class-action lawsuit, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study released last year.

Best Retirement Deal

Don Tyson, 71, who retired as senior chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., got a 10-year consulting contract that pays $800,000 a year plus 1 million shares of Class A stock at its 52-week low price. That goes nicely with his 101.6 million shares (99.9 percent) of the Class B stock. He controls 80.5 percent of the voting power in a dual stock arrangement that would not be allowed if the company were going public today.

Best Stock Selloff

Stephens Group Inc. made a deal to sell its stock and debt investments in Huntingdon Life Sciences Group, the controversial company that performs pharmaceutical testing on animals. The selloff came after the company and some of its officers were the target of activists who demonstrated in downtown Little Rock in late 2001.

Best Change in the Balance Sheet

ThermoEnergy Corp., the Little Rock public company that has been in existence for 14 years without ever recording any revenue, signed a deal with Williams Energy of Tulsa to market natural gas to utilities and other end-users.

Best Prognosticator

Arkansas Business' own columnist, University of Arkansas at Little Rock marketing professor Jim Karrh, who said in April that McDonald's Corp. had lost its way. As the year ended, the company announced that it would post its first-ever quarterly loss.

Best Prognosticator II (We Hope)

John Shelnutt, economist with the UALR's Institute for Economic Advancement, said in September that a measurable economic recovery in Arkansas is still six months away. Ah, spring is just around the corner.

Best Gift

It's hard to think of any gift more incredible than the $300 million that the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation gave to the University of Arkansas. It was the largest gift ever to a public university in the United States.

Worst Neighbor

Costello's and Cross-Eyed Pig owner Anthony Michael petitioned the Little Rock Planning Commis-sion to keep his business at 1717 Rebsamen Park Road open until 2 a.m., despite complaints from neighbors that it was too noisy. Some of the complaints included outdoor band performances late in the evening, fist fights and screams. The commission rejected Michael's request.

Best Dreamer/Worst Executor

Barry L. Emigh of Hot Springs dreamed of building world-class casinos for Arkansas. To do that, he needed to muster up about 70,000 signatures to get a casino gambling initiative on the ballot. It didn't help his chances when the Arkansas Securities Department ordered him to stop offering shares of stock to people who collected signatures for the ballot initiative. Emigh didn't scratch the surface of the signature requirement.

Worst News for Southland

Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis can't get a break. For the past 10 years, it has had to compete with the gambling Mecca of Tunica, Miss. And last month, Tennessee voters approved creation of a state lottery.

Best News for Movie Fans

In March, Mark Smith opened Market Street Cinema and gave Little Rock its first showcase for independent and foreign films. Earlier this month, Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas opened an 18-screen, state-of-the-art, stadium-style on Colonel Glenn Road. While movie-goers have more choices than ever, there may not be enough fannies to fill the seats. After all, the Carmike Cinema 7 in North Little Rock shut down in February, even before the competition heated up.

Best Symbolic Gesture

Dean Cannon, founder of the floundering Cannon Express of Springdale, stepped down as president and CEO of the company and hired a firm of retired CFOs to try and turn the company around. Cannon's wife, Rose Marie, also resigned her position as secretary and treasurer. Dean Cannon continues to serve as the chairman of the board, and Rose Marie Cannon will remain as a company director.

Best Attempt to Grab More Tax Revenue

The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration's decision to collect retroactive sales taxes from trucking companies, which had been registering their tractors and trailers in Oklahoma under what was essentially a legal tax break. The issue isn't over yet as the truckers will seek relief in the coming legislative session.



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