Tom Fite (R) has been ruled ineligible to be a candidate in the Arkansas House District 83 race. Barring a successful appeal, the ruling means Leslee Milam Post will be the next State Representative for the district.
Fite and Post (D) were after the Arkansas House seat opened with the term-limited Rep. Beverly Pyle, R-Cedarville, unable to seek re-election.
Fite’s legal challenge to his ballot status came from Michael Grulkey, who filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court saying Fite has a 1984 criminal conviction that makes him ineligible for election. Fort Smith attorney Brian Meadors represented Grulkey, and Greg Almand represented Fite.
Fite faced a federal jury trial in February 1984 on several counts of medicaid fraud and bribery. The trial, held in the Eastern District of Arkansas, ended in a mistrial, and Fite eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge and was given three years probation. (Fite has refused to respond to several attempts by The City Wire for comment on the matter.)
Saying that he was not properly served a court summons, Fite did not attend a Tuesday (Oct. 26) hearing on the matter.
Meadors said Wednesday he would ask Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Collins Kilgore to conduct the hearing without Fite.
On Wednesday, Judge Kilgore found that there was proper service against Fite and then recessed for a few minutes before beginning the hearing on Fite’s eligibility.
Meadors said a few minutes after the recess, Fite entered the courtroom.
“Keep in mind, this was just a few minutes after they (Fite’s family and attorney) said they didn’t know where he was,” Meadors explained.
According to Meadors, Kilgore heard arguments from both sides and then ruled it was “uncontroverted” that Fite was convicted of bribery and therefore is ineligible to hold public office. Meadors said Kilgore ordered that Fites votes not be counted and ordered that the Secretary of State not certify Fite as a winner.
Updated info: The Republican Party of Arkansas sent the following statement from Fite.
“It's no coincidence that my opponent issued a release on this complaint two days into early voting; she knows she cannot win this race at the ballot box and is hoping to win in the courtroom. I, nor my wife, were timely served with the summons, although we were available at our home and office all weekend. I am certainly qualified to run in the election and I look forward to serving the people of my district. I encourage voters to go out and cast their ballots to ensure the people of District 83 will be deciding this election rather than a judge in Little Rock. My attorney will be filing an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court and ask for an expedited hearing.”
Meadors said he hopes election officials in Franklin and Crawford counties will not make public the number of votes Fite receives.
“The Judge has order that they not be counted. That is the court’s order. It’s my understanding that there might be some logistical issues, that they can’t tell the electronic machines to not count the votes. I would be agreeable if they simply pull the numbers from the machine, but not make those public,” Meadors said.
Fite told KFSM 5 News that he would seek to file an appeal Thursday morning with the Arkansas Supreme Court. (Fite refused to speak to The City Wire.)
Meadors doesn’t believe there is time, and he also isn’t sure why the court would rule any different than it recently ruled in the Campbell v. Edwards case. On Tuesday (Oct. 26), Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown ruled that Greenwood Mayor Kenneth Edwards will not be eligible for reelection. Brown based the ruling on Edwards theft conviction related to stealing yard signs.
Meadors represented Campbell in that case.
“Their (Fite’s attorneys) arguments were no different than what they tried to use in Campbell versus Edwards. You can’t explain away your conviction,” Meadors said when asked about a possible appeal.
Post said in an interview after the Kilgore ruling that she is not taking any chances with the legal process.
“I am truly looking forward to the opportunity to serve the constituents of District 83. That has what I and my entire campaign crew have been working hard for during the past nine months. We will continue to work hard for the next six days as if the election is still one. Because you just never know what could happen,” Post said.
Although agreeing with the ruling, Post did say the episode is not what voters in the district deserve.
“I do think it is truly unfortunate that the people of this district don’t now have a choice. That’s what the democratic process is about,” Post said.