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Watchdog: Accountability

Plenty of unknowns in how to impeach Arkansas lieutenant governor Mark Darr

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Politics,Associated Press,Watchdog,Arkansas,Ethics,Accountability,Mark Darr

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr's impeachment over an ethics scandal may be "inevitable" unless he resigns, in the words of a fellow Republican. But before legislators could impeach Darr, they'd have to write the rules for the process, which Arkansas hasn't used in more than 140 years.

House Speaker Davy Carter said Wednesday that he hoped to appoint a bipartisan committee in the coming days to research the options for impeaching Darr, who is refusing to step down over ethics violations tied to his campaign and office spending.

Though the basic framework for impeaching an elected official is spelled out in the state constitution and state law, Carter said lawmakers face plenty of unanswered questions on how to move forward with impeachment.

"There's the beginning and the end," Carter said, referring to the state law and constitution. "All the in-between in the House is not there."

Figuring out that process would be the key first step toward removing Darr from office after he acknowledged to the Ethics Commission last week that he broke ethics and campaign laws 11 times since 2010 and agreed to pay $11,000 in fines.

On Wednesday, Darr showed no signs of relenting in his fight to stay in office, saying he believed it would set a bad precedent to step down over what he insists were unintentional mistakes.

"I'm in this as long as it's right for me and my family," Darr said on KHTE radio.

Darr's comments came a day after House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said he believed impeachment was "inevitable" if the lieutenant governor doesn't resign. The top Democrat in that chamber has said he plans to push for Darr's ouster.

The Arkansas Constitution gives the House the power to impeach officials such as the lieutenant governor for "high crimes and misdemeanors." If impeached by the House, he would be suspended from office while he is tried by the Senate. He would be removed if convicted by a two-thirds majority — 24 of the Senate's 35 members.

The 100-member House has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one member of the Green Party. The Senate has 21 Republicans and 13 Democrats, with one vacancy set to be filled next Tuesday.

The Ethics Commission last week said it found probable cause that Darr made personal use of $31,572.74 in campaign funds, received excess contributions to retire his campaign debt, didn't maintain adequate records, failed to itemize loan repayments and accepted improper reimbursement for travel expenses. A separate legislative audit last month cited more than $12,000 in improper expenses incurred by Darr's office.

Darr signed a letter Dec. 30 in which he accepted the commission's findings.

State law details how the Senate trial, presided over by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, would proceed. Several senators declined to comment on whether Darr should step down, noting that they would have to swear to "faithfully and impartially try the impeachment" at the beginning of the trial.

But procedural details are lacking in the House. House officials say they believe it would take a simple majority to impeach Darr. And just how to file articles of impeachment against the lieutenant governor is unclear.

"Is this is a resolution? Is this a bill that needs to be filed?" asked House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville.

Another key question, Westerman said, is whether Carter can convene the House for impeachment or the chamber has to wait until the session begins Feb. 10. Carter has said he won't begin impeachment proceedings until at least 51 members support doing so.

Senate President Michael Lamoureux said he'd prefer to not hold a trial during the legislative session. Lamoureux said he's asked Senate staff to outline the Senate procedures for a trial.

"Until [House members] act, we really don't know if we have a role," said Lamoureux, R-Russellville.

However the Legislature proceeds, it will set a standard for future showdowns, Carter said.

"It's important not only today, but in all of the years to come," he said. "We've got to get the process correct."

The last time an impeachment was attempted in Arkansas was in 1871, three years before the state's current constitution was adopted. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Gov. Powell Clayton survived impeachment in 1871 when the Legislature failed to take up allegations raised by a rival faction known as the "Brindletails." Later that year, legislators sent Clayton to Washington as a U.S. senator.

Since then, the closest the Legislature has come to an impeachment fight is when former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, believing that his Whitewater convictions would be reversed on appeal, reneged on a promise to resign July 15, 1996.

The decision led then-Attorney General Winston Bryant to file a lawsuit seeking to have Tucker declared unfit for office because of his fraud and conspiracy convictions. Mike Huckabee, who ascended to the governor's office, then gave Tucker until the next morning to quit or face impeachment. Tucker resigned that night, ending the matter in four hours.

Darr said he doesn't hold ill feelings toward those now seeking his removal from office.

"I asked the people of Arkansas for forgiveness and it would be wrong of me to ask for forgiveness if I'm not willing to forgive those people [seeking impeachment]," Darr said.

Darr's public comments are perplexing lawmakers from his own party such as Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, who wouldn't say whether lawmakers should impeach him.

"It almost appears that he's daring someone to make that move," Files said.

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