Matt Campbell, viewing Arkansas politics with the eyes of a liberal outsider trained in the law, has brought down three major public officials in the last two years because, he says, he doesn’t like bullies and he thinks people should play by the rules.
People who know the founder of the Blue Hog Report blog — and there aren’t that many because, after all, he ain’t from around here — say the same thing.
“Matt cares about people,” says former state Rep. David Kizzia, a lawyer in private practice in Malvern. “Matt doesn’t like bullies. I don’t think that Matt has any positive regard for people who utilize their position or their resources to disadvantage others or to get over on folks. I think those sorts of things offend Matt’s sensibilities.
“Matt usually has a good read of people,” said Kizzia, who met Campbell when both worked for the Pulaski County Public Defender’s Office. “And Matt’s usually pretty intuitive on picking up on hypocrisy. I think if someone lives in a brick house and is heaving bricks all over the place, Matt is more than happy to return the favor.”
Little Rock lawyer and activist David Couch calls Campbell, 36, “a pot stirrer.” Campbell, like Couch, thinks government should be transparent and politicians should be accountable to the people.
“You have to keep people on their toes and keep them accountable and take a position that’s not necessarily politically popular but probably is popular with the people,” Couch says.
There’s little doubt that five years after founding the Blue Hog Report blog, Campbell, who grew up in southwest Missouri, is keeping prominent people in Arkansas on their toes — at least those prominent people who want to hold onto their government jobs.
His takedowns include a lieutenant governor (Mark Darr), a circuit judge (Mike Maggio) and, just six weeks ago, the head of Arkansas’ largest school district (Dexter Suggs). (See Matt Campbell’s Greatest Hits: A Timeline of the Blue Hog Report.)
And he’s done this all for free, or almost free. Someone who didn’t know better bought an ad on the blog back in 2010 and a former Arkansan sent Campbell a check along with the exhortation to “keep up the good work.” It was not, apparently, a very large check.
Campbell is a solo practitioner, the founder, two years ago, of Pinnacle Law Firm of Little Rock. His practice focuses on what he calls a “weird mix” of things — some oil and gas cases, a whistleblower case involving the Fort Smith Police Department.
“Anytime somebody feels they’ve been wronged by anything more powerful than them — I get a lot of those calls,” he said in a recent interview.
But what Campbell does with the Blue Hog Report is investigative journalism, finding a loose thread and pulling, pulling, pulling until the target’s misdeeds are finally unraveled.
It wasn’t what he set out to do, Campbell says. “My dad always said that he thought I would be a lawyer. I think my mom kind of suspected I might go to med school. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I kind of fell backward into what I’m doing now.”
What He Did for Love
Like so many other outsiders, Campbell moved to Arkansas for love. A summer job at the Little Rock law firm of Gill Elrod Ragon Owen & Sherman (now Gill Ragon Owen PA) brought him to Little Rock in 2005.
“The adorable receptionist who I’d met during my interview in December was at the front desk, smiling as I walked in,” Campbell said on his Facebook page last month. “Little did I know that I would wind up with a far longer relationship with Leabeth Campbell than I did with the firm. In the end, though, I’d say that was the most successful summer job I ever had.”
Now his wife, Leabeth Campbell is the daughter of Diane Suitt Gilleland, whom old-timers will remember as the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education from 1990 to 1997, approved for the post by then-Gov. Bill Clinton and replaced by Lu Hardin.
Leabeth didn’t want to leave Arkansas, so Campbell started looking for work in Little Rock after obtaining his law degree from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 2006.
“It took three or four months to find a job after I got here,” Campbell says. “I couldn’t get interviews with firms because it was always sort of ‘Why you coming in from out of state?’”
But he hit it off with Bill Simpson, Pulaski County’s chief public defender, and got a job as an investigator at the Public Defender’s Office, where he worked for three years. He moved on to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2009, serving as an assistant criminal justice coordinator.
In 2010, Campbell and Jeff Woodmansee co-founded the Blue Hog Report, a blog devoted to politics.
“2010 was when Vic Snyder retired, and there were five candidates running on the Democrats’ side for his seat” in Congress, Campbell says. “I didn’t really have the free time and the flexibility to help any specific campaign, so it was almost just sort of a news aggregator for me at first.
“It’s funny to go back and look at how superficial a lot of the first posts were because they were sort of that old-style of blogging, ‘Here’s a news link. Here’s a quote from it. What do you think?’”
Campbell wears the term “liberal” proudly. However, “I do sort of push back at the [phrase] ‘Democrat blogger.’ And that label is probably my own fault for calling the blog Blue Hog Report. People ignore the stories you do that actually call Democrats out.”
“I look into Democrats,” he adds later. “The thing is, on a level like on these statewide office levels, where anybody would care, I didn’t find anything. And now there are no statewide Democrats.”
(The Blue Hog Report was inactive during the two years leading up to Democratic State Treasurer Martha Shoffner’s arrest for bribery and extortion.)
Asked to codify his politics in 50 words, Campbell shared the following by email:
“I believe in Progressivism as originally conceived: that improvements in education, science and technology lead to a betterment of society, and that government’s chief role should be to support these advancements. I believe in transparency, New Keynesian economics, and that skepticism is a healthy default position in all things political.”
In the spring of 2011, the Blue Hog Report, making free use of the state Freedom of Information Act, targeted legislative expenditure reimbursements and Secretary of State Mark Martin’s use of a state vehicle.
The Arkansas Republican Party pushed back, filing FOI requests for the employment, phone and email records of Campbell, then working at the state Supreme Court, and Jeff Woodmansee, then an employee at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law Library.
Campbell says the GOP tried to get him fired. Doyle Webb, party chairman, has a different take:
“The Republican Party of Arkansas issued FOIAs to the Judicial Department of Arkansas to determine if Mr. Campbell was conducting partisan political activity during normal work hours while an employee of the state of Arkansas,” Webb said in an email. “We do not know the basis for his leaving or whether or not he was terminated from the Judicial Department for illegal political activity, but his political activity did cease and he gained employment elsewhere.”
Campbell, who denies operating the blog while on the state’s dime, shut down the Blue Hog Report in May 2011 and maintained a low profile until opening Pinnacle Law Firm in 2013. Now his own boss, Campbell revived the blog in May 2013.
“It was no big deal to me to keep it shut down while I was [at the Supreme Court] other than, I guess, some irritation that I knew people felt like they had won,” he says. “But the irony is they acted like it was never going to come back. So then they had two years of rope to hang themselves, and that’s exactly what Mark Darr did.”
With the Blue Hog Report 2.0, Campbell posts less often but seeks to make every post count. He bases his reports on meticulous research, which he enjoys. “I hate the unanswered questions, and I’ll keep digging until I find the answer, just for myself.”
Sometimes someone he knows will pose a question, or he’ll just be curious about something. And sometimes, it’s something else entirely.
“I guess it goes back to how small Arkansas is. Everybody seems to know something about someone,” Campbell says. “It seems like everybody has a dark secret with sort of varying levels of how dark, at least one about somebody. And it seems like eventually the person they have a secret about will do something to make them mad and then somebody feels the need to get that story out there.”
And when they do, they turn to Campbell.
Max Brantley of the Arkansas Blog admires Campbell’s work. “It’s pretty rare in the business of providing information where you can have measurable impact, and there’s no doubt he has.”
And there’s this, Brantley says: People in public service who might be inclined to corruption “know that there’s somebody out there digging through the minutia and matching up records with other events and doing this kind of work. It’s a valuable thing.”
Political columnist John Brummett says Campbell and the Blue Hog Report have had a tremendous impact on Arkansas.
“I think there are people in state government taking special pains to behave because of the Blue Hog. And it may be more than state government since he’s delved into Little Rock school issues,” Brummett says. “I think people know that this guy is liable to turn his attention to them, and if he picks them, they’re in trouble if they’ve done anything wrong.”