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MIKE MASTERSON: Pesky contradictions

Conflicts of trust

Contradictions can cause my skeptical little brain to convulse. I hear an elected politico pronounce one thing as fact nowadays when plain folks claim the opposite. And I believe the folks.

Such a study in contradiction has been making headlines of late over in Carroll and Madison counties where GOP state Rep. Bob Ballinger, a Berryville attorney, has been stating since April that failed SB373 of 2017, which would have diluted the state's Freedom of Information Act, never had any organized resistance.

Some believe had that amendment become law, it would have gutted our law by, among other provisions, exempting communications between colleges or universities, other governmental entities and their lawyers.

No resistance to neutering our state's Freedom of Information Act? Get serious, Bob.

Members of the Arkansas Press Association always vigorously oppose legislative attempts to dilute one of the strongest FOI laws in the country. That includes Ellen Kreth, publisher of Huntsville's Madison County Record, who publicly told Ballinger the press had been opposed to the bill.

Both weekly newspapers in Eureka Springs have covered the controversy since his comments during an April 19 meeting in Huntsville. Scott Loftis, managing editor of the Carroll County News, openly opposes Ballinger, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest in the primary. He understandably doesn't trust Ballinger, a very large man, any farther than he can toss him, even with my help.

In a recent piece, Loftis detailed an exchange between Ballinger and Kreth at that April meeting:

Kreth: "The press association never did support Bill 373."

Ballinger: "They didn't oppose it."

Kreth: "We always opposed it. We always did."

A couple of weeks later in a debate with King, Ballinger was asked about that exchange.

Loftis quoted Ballinger's response: "It's funny that the press ... which is liberal, is being involved with my opponent's side and helping him with this. The reason why I said the press association didn't oppose the bill is, there was no opposition to the bill. To my committee, the state agencies committee, there was no opposition, no organized opposition. The press association didn't do anything. ... I don't know if they supported it; there was no organized opposition. It comes to my committee, and it's a crappy bill. It needs to be amended. I didn't sponsor the bill."

Then surfaced a revelatory video recording of a meeting from March 1, 2017, of the House State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Ballinger, in which he asks GOP state Rep. Andy Davis, the House sponsor, for his opinions.

Loftis reported: "Brief explanation, it's a short bill," Davis says. "The problem we have is that FOI is being used to circumvent a discovery process, attorney-client privilege, when the client is a public entity. This bill would protect that attorney-client communication under FOI."

Ballinger, after asking for questions, said: "We do have the press association who is signed up to speak against. Does anybody else want to present anything on that?" Ballinger afterwards added, "We have three people signed up to speak against." And who is seated behind Davis in the video? Why, it's Tom Larimer of Green Forest who was executive director of the Arkansas Press Association until this January.

But how can that be when Ballinger said "there was no opposition," and "the press association didn't do anything. ... I don't know if they supported it"?

On March 12, 2017, this newspaper published a story revealing that the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University systems were aiding Ballinger with proposed language for the Freedom of Information Act amendment he was preparing. It was, legal experts agreed, an unnecessary amendment which would hamper citizen access by concealing records that should remain public.

The story also said Ballinger had taken Davis' place promoting the amendment in the House after Davis began hearing from critics about this proposed bill.

The Democrat-Gazette story also carried public criticisms of SB373 from Larimer, Little Rock attorney John Tull and UALR law professor Robert Steinbuch.

Yet Ballinger with a straight face a year later publicly proclaims, "there was no organized opposition."

My other trust problem here involves Ballinger working for Ecclesia College in Springdale as its attorney while directing the state's now defunct General Improvement funds to that tiny private college as a legislator. Yes, you read that obvious conflict correctly.

As Loftis described in his related concerns: "Among the work that Ballinger has done for Ecclesia is title work on a parcel of land in Springdale that the college purchased in 2013. The 23.2-acre tract had an appraised value of $204,600 in 2016--three years after Ecclesia paid $675,000 for it. Perhaps there's a reasonable explanation for why the college paid so much for the land, but we haven't heard it. Ecclesia isn't talking, and neither is Ballinger."

Anyone share a buffered headache powder?

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 05/13/2018

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