opinion by Maylon Rice
Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
“Raise your right hand.”
Usually, when one hears those four little words things start to get serious in a court of law. And now, it seems, testifying in front of at least one committee in the state legislature will be a lot more serious and on the record.
This week, finally, the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee will ask those four little words and the following phrases about what they are about to say to become sworn testimony. Public officials and others who may appear before the committee will be asked to give sworn testimony.
Seems like the right thing to do. Especially, considering some of high profile testimony that’s been uttered – some under oath, and others not under oath, on topics involving state finances.
Most recently, committee co-chairman Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, decided to swear in officials of the University of Arkansas about the train wreck of a financial mess uncovered at the flagship campus in Fayetteville.
And guess what?
Right out of mouth of the first witness – John Diamond, a former high-ranking university employee who was fired by UA officials – uttered a revelation of the possible destruction of public records which were sought in a Freedom of Information request. That allegation of destroying records, was disputed, by yet another sworn witness, UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart, sitting just feet away from the first witness at the same witness table.
The matter of he said/he said was somewhat tabled by the committee and sent to the Washington County Prosecuting Attorney for deeper and more serious, on-the-record conversations. Some of those additional conversations, may, perhaps, also be taken under oath.
So, why swear anyone in at the upcoming committee meetings if this is now in the hands of a prosecutor?
It seems there are often conflicting, if not downright false stories told to Legislators and auditors of how things get in such a mess. Here is a large committee made up of both chambers of the state Legislature (all part-time lawmakers) trying to sort through the morass of an audit, find the truth of how things got so screwed up, and allow the audit committee some direction to make laws or policy to keep things in line.
Whew. What a chore.
To Rep. Hammer’s credit, he saw this train wreck coming.
He told the press this week that it was “better to swear them in on the front end.” Wise move. Finding the truth on the back end is sometime an elusive undertaking.
The motion to swear in all witnesses before the committee didn’t come easy. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, was wary of the measure. She didn’t want to open up cases that have been referred to the prosecutor for an additional look. She was being cautious of protecting the rights of those testifying. What was not clear, she said, was even after turning the audit over to the prosecutor, the audit committee has a propensity to “keep picking at scabs.”
“Sometimes you need to follow the first rule of discipline, leave things alone,” Chesterfield said.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forrest, and a bulldog of the UA audit, assured committee members that what has been turned over to the prosecutor will not be discussed at the committee’s meeting in November.
A voice of reason on the issue, came from State Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, a legend of civil rights in the state.
“You probably want to do for all or none (in swearing in witnesses) because you don’t want to be conducting witch hunts on select persons.”
Walker also said: “For us (the committee) we want the testimony about what the facts are and we want to know whether or not what happened there is happening in other places and whether or not there is need for more legislation.”
Or more sworn testimony.
Lost in the shuffle of all the UA Audit mess is that fact that John Diamond, the former UA Public Relations guru, is a former four-term Maine legislator. Diamond, in fact, was the Maine House Majority leader in the legislature. He should know better than anyone when facing a legislative committee to “tell the truth, and nothing but the truth.”
No more it is just about “appearing before” the Joint Audit Committee. It is now about “testifying.”
And that, in itself, is a much needed improvement in the Legislature’s audit review process and a serious matter for all.