Posted 12/23/2013 07:41 am
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — A political newcomer who rode to office on an anti-Obama tidal wave three years ago, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr once seemed like the new face of a Republican Party that was growing in Arkansas.
But claims of improper office and campaign spending aren't just threatening his political future, they're throwing into question whether he'll be able to remain in office.
Ethics Commission staff reportedly told Darr last week that they believe he improperly spent more than $44,000 from his campaign and office.
A blogger who filed an ethics complaint against Darr and the lieutenant governor's attorney told reporters last week that the commission reviewed a report that included $31,500 in personal use of campaign funds, about $3,500 in improper use of a state credit card and about $3,500 in improper travel reimbursements.
The ethics investigation comes on the heels of a legislative audit that cited $12,000 in travel expenses and reimbursements by his office. And it's another low point for Darr, who dropped his 2014 bid for a south Arkansas congressional seat over campaign spending questions.
He's finding little support among one-time allies. Even the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page, which leans conservative, has called on him to resign.
"Go away, Mark Darr - now," the paper's editorial read.
If he heeds that advice, it'll be the end of Darr's quick rise from a northwest Arkansas pizza shop owner who had never sought office before to a lieutenant governor who knew how to grab headlines and ride popular issues.
Darr won the lieutenant governor's office in 2010, defeating Democratic rival and former state Sen. Shane Broadway, in a race where he promised to use the part-time position to fight the president's health overhaul on the state level.
Darr said he viewed the office as a chance to counter Democrats' dominance of state office.
"Right now, we have a one-party system," Darr said. "This allows some checks and balances."
After winning he wasn't afraid to use the office to poke at Democrats and wasn't shy about his own political ambitions. Six months after being sworn in, Darr even openly toyed with the idea of running against two of the Democratic Party's biggest figures as he mulled congressional and gubernatorial bids.
"In a dream world, I'd love to run against Ross in '12 and beat him and run against McDaniel in '14 and beat him," Darr said in June 2011, referring to then-U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. "Just beat them both, knock them both out."
That willingness to poke at political enemies also prompted Darr to sign into law a bill making secret the state's concealed-carry list. Darr signed the measure while Gov. Mike Beebe was out of state, enacting a measure the Democratic governor said he planned to allow to take effect without his signature.
"Having been an outspoken advocate for Second Amendment rights, I felt passionately that there should be no delays in signing this bill into law," Darr said in February.
Beebe later complained to reporters that the lieutenant governor's decision was inappropriate.
"I always thought we had a pretty decent relationship," Beebe said. "Obviously, I'll be much more careful. You can't turn your back now."
Questions about Darr's campaign and office spending undermine Republicans, who had hoped to paint Democrats as ethically challenged following the resignations of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner and state Sen. Paul Bookout. Shoffner stepped down after she was arrested and charged with steering state investments to a broker who gave her cash, and Bookout resigned after the state Ethics Commission said he spent thousands from his campaign on personal items.
Darr's problems also add an ironic twist to his main policy accomplishment as lieutenant governor. The audit and ethics investigation followed reporting by Matt Campbell, a lawyer who operates a Democrat-leaning blog. Campbell had used the state's open records law to mine Darr's spending records.
They're the same type of records that Darr, who successfully pushed for an "online checkbook" to track state spending, had argued Arkansans should have easy access to.
"I believe the people of Arkansas will overwhelmingly want to know where their money is being spent," Darr said in 2010.