Resign or face a possible impeachment.
That is the choice the Democratic members of the Arkansas House of Representatives are giving Lt. Gov. Mark Darr following his refusal to resign his position after the state Ethics Commission handed down an $11,000 fine Monday (Dec. 30) against the lieutenant governor for various ethics violations centered around misspending of nearly $44,000 in both campaign and state funds.
The message from Democratic House members is the strongest yet following calls from Gov. Mike Beebe (D), and all five Republican members of the Congressional delegation for Darr to resign.
"We as a caucus are (saying) that if a resignation does not occur, that due to his unethical actions in office he has lost the trust of the people of Arkansas and under Article 15, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution, we would move forward with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives," said Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, speaking on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus.
Section 1 of Article 15 notes: “The Governor and all State officers, Judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts, Chancellors and Prosecuting Attorneys, shall be liable to impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors, and gross misconduct in office; but the judgment shall go no further than removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit under this State. An impeachment, whether successful or not, shall be no bar to an indictment."
Copenhaver said Darr's refusal to resign, even after admitting to 11 violations of state ethics laws, showed a disregard for the rule of law and the trust placed in public officials.
"I think with the Ethics Commission (ruling), that basically showed the disregard (Darr) has for Arkansas campaign and ethics rules. They came back and said that he committed 11 violations and that he abused the public's trust," he said, adding that while impeachment was rarely threatened in Arkansas politics, the caucus' "main objective is just to restore integrity and trust back to the office."
"As the number two position in state government, he's lost trust," Copenhaver added.
Democratic membership in the House sits at 48 members out of 100 positions. Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said there would have to be some crossover support from Republicans in order for impeachment to be successful, support he says could be within reach.
"I think we need 67 votes in this case," he said, adding that it is a two-thirds threshold that must be met for impeachment. "We need significant help from our colleagues in the House. We're only 48 strong. We'd need 19 or so (Republican votes)."
Arkansas House of Representatives Spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo, speaking on behalf of Speaker of the House Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he would need "an indication from 51 members before he moves forward that they want to proceed with impeachment."
House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said any decision on whether he would support the Democrats' call for impeachment would largely depend on whether criminal charges are brought against Darr before the fiscal session begins in just a few weeks. Pulaski Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley is reviewing documents from the Ethics Commission investigation and a separate legislative audit for possible criminal charges.
"There's a long time between now and then," Westerman said. "I hope the issue takes care of itself before then. We'll just have to address that then."
Republican sources have said they are uncertain how Darr could hope to stay in office given the mounting pressure for him to resign, adding that it is likely he would be forced out should the impeachment articles make it to the House floor resulting in a Senate trial.
Should the House vote to impeach Darr, Article 15, Section 2 of the Arkansas Constitution does state that he would face a trial before the Senate.
“The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment. All impeachments shall be tried by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose, the Senators shall be upon oath or affirmation; no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members thereof. The Chief Justice shall preside, unless he is impeached or otherwise disqualified, when the Senate shall select a presiding officer."
Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said Beebe will have to decide on calling a special election if Darr does resign or is removed from office. However, DeCample told The City Wire that initial legal research is not 100% conclusive on if a special election is required and the necessary timeframes. When then Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller died in office in July 2006, Arkansas Democratic and Republican leaders agreed with the decision by Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to not call a special election because the general election was less than four months away.
The march to impeachment comes even as the calls for resignation grow louder, even from members of Darr's own party.
Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, who announced a run for lieutenant governor shortly after Darr began his short-lived run for Congress in the 4th District last year, became the first Republican member of the House to call for Darr's immediate resignation.
"In light of the recent findings of the Arkansas Ethics Commission and the Legislative Audit Committee, I believe it is in the best interest of the state of Arkansas for Lt. Gov. Darr to vacate his position. I hope he will take this action soon. In his role presiding over the Senate, I believe Lt. Gov. Darr’s presence during the upcoming fiscal session could prove to be an unnecessary distraction as the legislature hopes to focus its full attention on other important issues facing our state."
Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, said it was time for Darr to "do the right thing."
"If he did do something wrong and knows it and if the prosecutor determines it, then I think it's in his best interest and the best interest of Arkansas to resign."
John Burkhalter, a Democrat seeking to replace Darr in the lieutenant governor's office, also released a statement demanding Darr's resignation.
"I have always believed as an Arkansan and a businessman that the most sacred responsibility any elected official holds is personal integrity and the public’s trust. Arkansans need to know that the second-highest ranking official in state government is someone they can trust and depend on to do the right thing. These admitted state law violations by Mr. Darr cloud the trust people place in the Lieutenant Governor’s office and I believe he needs to resign."
The last time a serious threat of impeachment was used to force the resignation of a sitting member of the executive branch was in 1996, when then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was refusing to resign in the wake of his conviction for fraud and conspiracy tired to the Whitewater scandal. Tucker had rescinded his initial resignation, with then-Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee threatening to call a special session to consider articles of impeachment should Tucker not step down. Tucker resigned at 6 p.m. on July 15, 1996.
Darr's office did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.