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The news roundup and open line

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 12:44 PM PST

News and comment and an open line for readers.

Arkansas: Trump country

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 12:14 PM PST

The map of CNN polling says it all about so many things — the 12 states where Donald Trump still enjoys a favorable rating above 50 percent.

Kind of sort of related: The Bureau of Legislative Research reported today that only three states have total sovereign immunity — Arkansas, Alabama and West Virginia. The rest are split with no such constitutional provision or the ability of state legislatures to waive it, an ability that existed in Arkansas by court precedent until the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed precedent two weeks ago.

Flu update for Arkansas. It's bad. Take precautions.

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 11:14 AM PST

Gov. Asa Hutchinson joined state health officials to talk about the flu outbreak this year.

What I'm hearing:

* Arkansas may be near peaking and the hope is for a decline in new cases soon.

* It's not too late to get a flu shot, particularly those in higher-risk groups.

* This in high-risk groups should seek treatment quickly if symptoms appear.

* Wash your hands.

* Don't go back to work or school before going 24 hours without symptoms.

* Nobody can say for sure why it's worse this year.

* Flu-related deaths in Arkansas are already the second-highest in 17 years and likely will exceed the previous high before the season is over.. Death toll currently put at 94.

The governor noted high school absentee rates, as high as 13 percent in Scott County.

Get your guns; courses soon to begin for enhanced concealed carry permits

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 10:04 AM PST

The availability of the new enhanced concealed carry permit, with its broader power to be carried into public buildings previously off-limits, is drawing nigh.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson boasted today on Twitter, every striving to outflank primary opponent Jan Morgan.

Best estimate of a State Police spokesman Liz Chapman is that the state is perhaps 2 to three months away from issuing the first enhanced permit under the state law that grew out of Rep. Charlie Collins' desire to get guns on college campuses. It's now allowed by those with an enhanced permit. Some sites can be ruled off-limits, such as Razorback stadium. But the bill opened bars and many public buildings previously closed to those with the basic concealed carry permit. Private businesses that wish to be exempt from the law must post notices to that effect.

Letters went out Friday to 70 instructors (of 1,000 in the state) that they'd been certified to teach the new course to qualify for an enhanced concealed carry permit. to take that course, a person must first have the basic concealed carry permit and thus already passed the background check. Then, a course with a minimum of six hours in the classroom and two hours on a firing range are required.

But once an instructor has a permit in hand, he or she may begin the permit classes. At least one instructor in Lonoke County has said he'd start the courses immediately.

There's been some resistance to the new law, particularly the requirement that all licensed instructors must take the test to be certified to issue certificates for those seeking the permits. They will not be required to offer that training, but still must take the test, the spokesman said. There's been some talk of changes to the law, both on the testing end and its application. For example, it's been noted that you may not store a weapon in a college dorm, but the law apparently allows someone with a permit to enter a dorm with a weapon.

The testing process for instructors continues through July 1.

Additional wrinkle: The hard-core gun activists insist no permit is required to carry a concealed weapon and seem to spoil for a court test. Hutchinson, to his credit, has defended the permitting process as being well within the bounds of the 2nd Amendment.

The State of the Union: Unwatchable

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 09:03 AM PST

Here's all the justification you need to skip t
he State of the Union speech tonight.

It became a largely irrelevant stage show long before Donald Trump came along, but he takes its irrelevance to a new level. Peter Hamby writes for Vanity Fair:

Hardcore political junkies will make the speech appointment viewing, but plenty more will opt out. Ratings for this year's speech will undoubtedly be lower than last year's. And it will have no impact on public opinion whatsoever. As FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten noted on Sunday, "Since Carter, the average net change in a president's approval rating between before and after the SOTU is 0 points." What's left is a made-for-television event full of empty calories and little political consequence. Tom Brokaw, the moral grandpa of TV news, tweeted that the State of the Union is "a kabuki exercise. reps of potus party hop up and down, like electronic programmed moles. Oppo goes dark."

Brokaw left out of the embarrassing spectacle of random congressmen lining up hours beforehand, along the aisle of the House floor, just to be seen on camera touching the president, but he's right. Brokaw's admonition, though, will do little to stop decision-makers in the media from manufacturing drama where there isn't any. The networks will put their biggest names on beautiful sets overlooking panoramas of Washington, executives will dash into town from New York on the Delta Shuttle to lord over their D.C. bureau control rooms, and producers will commission snap polls and maybe even a Frank Luntz focus group. Hopefully we can hear from voters in Trump country. We haven't heard enough from them. Pundits will spend the day and night chewing over Trump's promises about infrastructure and immigration, even though those agenda items will be gunked up in the washer and dryer of House and Senate committees, if they make it that far. Trump has no goodwill to speak of with the Democratic caucuses in either chamber. At least seven House Democrats are skipping the speech altogether. Those seven will surely be among those to vote for Trump's impeachment if they take back the House in November. And while roughly 800,000 Dreamers are waiting for a sign that the White House will protect them from deportation, whatever the president says about DACA won't matter much, either. Congressional leaders in both parties will go back to hammering out a possible immigration deal on their own the next day, while Trump puts on a hat and pretends to make phone calls from an empty Oval Office desk.
Some unscripted moments sometimes entertain and/or outrage. As when my old frat brother Joe Wilson yelled that Barack Obama was a liar. Or Justice Samuel Alito was caught muttering about Obama. A water bottle-grabbing Marco Rubio, in a Republican response, also comes to mind.

 Who knows, the big deal tonight might be Joe Kennedy III. Somebody's gotta run in 2020 and with all due respect, I hope to goodness it isn't Joe or Bernie.

Arkansas’s largest municipal utility solar power plant unveiled in Clarksville

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 08:42 AM PST

The state's largest municipal utility solar power plant was officially introduced to the public on Wednesday, January 24th in Clarksville. The plant includes more than 20,000 solar modules that track the sun's movement and is expected to save Clarksville utility customers $500,000 per year while reducing carbon emissions. In addition, local charities will benefit from $100,000 in charitable contributions from solar power project participants and community members.

Clarksville Light & Water Co. (CLW) signed a contract last July with project developer Scenic Hill Solar to deliver the plant mid-2018, but the plant was constructed six months ahead of schedule and on-budget. Under the terms of the partnership, Scenic Hill Solar owns and operates the plant and sells the cheaper, cleaner energy for the next 28 years to CLW. CLW also retains an option to purchase the solar plant from Scenic Hill Solar in eight years.

"We believe small communities can think and do big things. Our partnership with Scenic Hill Solar differentiates Clarksville by providing a local power generation resource, increases our already sizable portfolio of non-emitting power supply resources, positions our community as forward thinking, and yet our customers save money at the same time," said Clarksville Light & Water Co. general manager John Lester. "In fact, with more businesses looking to increase their sustainability efforts, Clarksville is well positioned to help them meet their goals by CLW energy supply being approximately 50% renewable. In fact, as a municipal utility we have the flexibility to be able to provide a 100% renewable supply to potential new business if they have interest," Lester said.

In its first year of operation, the solar power plant will generate over 11 million kilowatt hours of electricity representing 25 percent of CLW's residential load. Over the next 30 years the plant will produce more than 305 million kilowatt hours of electricity and is expected to cut carbon emissions by approximately 215,000 metric tons, which is equivalent to eliminating more than 500 million passenger car miles driven or eliminating more than 200 million pounds of coal from being burned.

"We are proud to partner with CLW on a power plant that reduces costs, provides future price certainty for their electricity, reduces emissions, employs local workers, and gives Clarksville its first local generating resource," Scenic Hill Solar CEO Bill Halter said. "We commend the leadership of Clarksville for their forward-looking vision and are confident that other communities will follow their example."

"We are thrilled to announce that solar power project participants are joining together to contribute $100,000 to local charitable organizations," Halter said. "Our collective contribution will allow the Johnson County Imagination Library's to meet its goal of providing children born in Johnson County, Arkansas with a book each month for the first five years of their lives. Additionally, contributions will benefit the Augsburg Food Bank, Finding Hope, Heroes on the Water, and Union Rescue Mission."

Live web-cam and time-lapse of clarksville solar project:


Suspect hits deputy's car in long pursuit

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 08:04 AM PST

Pulaski County deputies report a suspect's car hit a patrol car during the course of a long chase south of Little Rock yesterday that ended with the arrest of a man with an outstanding warrant on a firearms charge.

From the report on the chase:

Two deputies had made a call at 12516 Arch Street and, when preparing to leave about 2:25 p.m,. Monday, one deputy said she thought a driver of a vehicle in the yard had attempted to conceal something. He identified himself as Jason Rasburry, 44.

The deputies said Rasburry refused to roll his window down or unlock his door. A radio check showed he was named in a Saline County warrant for failure to appear on a weapons charge.

Deputies asked him to get out of his vehicle. They said he refused, then drove away. Deputies gave chase, but lost him on Arch Street Pike.

Another deputy, hearing the vehicle had been spotted on Vinson Road, drove there and people pointed him toward Hilaro Springs Road, but he couldn't find him. Later, the suspect's car was spotted at Geyer Springs Cutoff and Geyer Springs Road. He was driving northbound, but turned around and struck a patrol unit's passenger side in the process. He kept going, finally to Chicot Road and beyond. Deputies found the vehicle off Heinke Road in Saline County and the suspect was found hiding under a residence. at Heinke and Jupiter. He was charged with fleeing and aggravated assault.

Freedom of Information no longer free at Little Rock Police Department

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 07:52 AM PST

Announcement from LRPD:

Starting today's date there will be a charge for anyone who files a Freedom of Information (FOI) request with the Little Rock Police department and the documents requested require a CD or disk to be generated. The fee will be $3.00 per disk. This will include 911 calls or radio traffic, video footage from patrol vehicles (MVR) and surveillance footage. This also will include when any large amount of documents (such as a case file) are requested. The CD will still be at the desk officer and the fee will be paid at the records window just to the right of the front desk.
It is probably only coincidental that blogger Russ Racop, a candidate for Little Rock City Board, has papered (digitaled?) the LRPD with FOI requests in pursuit of a generally critical view of the department's work. They aren't the only objects of his information requests.

The FOI allows reasonable fees for production of materials. A CD holds a lot of information.  I'm not immediately inclined to think ill of the policy. Other public officials and agencies have attempted to use outlandish fees to discourage FOI requests (remember you, Secretary of State Mark Martin).

UPDATE: Blue Hog Report thinks VERY ill of the policy and outlines why he thinks it violates the FOI law in the new charge. He makes one key point that I often mention to people seeking records. The law allows you to INSPECT records. The state may not insist that the records be provided as copies that they must first make and perhaps charge for. And they must be made available promptly. You can bring your own copying device to copy them. Think thumbdrive. Blue Hog cites the Fort Smith Police Department, with which he's warred in lawsuits, for a better way — putting documents in cloud storage for easy and free access.

Amazon, Buffett, JP Morgan team up on health care

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 07:35 AM PST

Well this bears watching. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett) and JP Morgan are creating a health care company aimed at providing quality health care at a reasonable cost.

And this:

"The ballooning costs of [healthcare] act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy," Buffett said in a prepared statement. "Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable. Rather, we share the belief that putting our collective resources behind the country's best talent can, in time, check the rise in health costs while concurrently enhancing patient satisfaction and outcomes."

The new company will be independent and "free from profit-making incentives and constraints." The businesses said the new venture's initial focus would be on technology.

Does Jake Files face prison time and, if so, how much?

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 07:26 AM PST

State Sen. Jake Files , (R-Fort Smith)_ is expected to resign today as a state senator, ending his one remaining source of steady income. He'll be relying, on account of lack of financial resources, on a taxpayer-provided public defender as he awaits sentencing by federal Judge P.K. Holmes.

And when that day arrives, what?

I've talked with a criminal defense lawyer and perused the federal guide on sentencing. Files' has pleaded guilty to three felonies, bank and wire fraud and money laundering, the most serious of which, bank fraud, carries a maximum 30-year sentence. He'll get nothing like that, most likely, though the final decision is up to the judge.

Federal sentencing guidelines provide a dramatic reduction for first offenders, which Files is. He also will get credit for admitting responsibility. He'll get additional credit if he provides cooperation in testimony against others, in trial or before a grand jury, which he promises to do in his plea agreement. But we have no idea today if that promise is merely boilerplate or an indication that more is to come. I happen to find it hard to believe that somebody who cheated multiple lenders, a city government, the state and others engaged in criminal acts only twice — in obtaining and personally tapping $46,000 in state money for a city  project he never finished and in using a piece of construction equipment he no longer owned to fraudulently obtain a $55,000 loan. But those are the facts he faces in sentencing.

At page 428 in the sentencing guidelines, you can get an idea of what the probation office might recommend for Files. A key factor is how much of a financial loss he's found to have caused. From the criminal information, at least $100,000 would seem to be at issue.

He gets 7 points under the guidelines for the seriousness of the offense; 8 points for a $100,000 loss, and two points for abuse of a position of trust. Those 17 points could be offset by a deduction of three points for taking responsibility. At a total of 14 points (and again this is a rough guess), the guidelines recommend a sentence of 15 to 21 months. In the federal system, you earn scant credit for time served, but final months can be spent in community-based halfway houses. Probation seems out of the question for these offenses, but, again, the judge makes the call.

The plea agreement notes that Files has talked with the government about the potential sentencing range he faces, but also notes the judge makes the call. Judges frequently look askance at elected officials who behave badly. In Files case, he's been behaving badly for a long time. It was almost three years ago, in early 2015, when Files got a loan from a lobbyist, Bruce Hawkins, to help bail him out of a tight spot. He was then facing a hot check investigation, had pending state liens and problems had already emerged in the sports project he was supposed to build for the city. He got $1 million before the deal cratered and the project was never completed.

We have a recent example for comparison. Former Democratic state Treasurer Martha Shoffner (who happens to hail from Newport, Judge Holmes' hometown) got a 30-month sentence after she pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from a bond salesman to whom she'd steered state investments. She reported to prison Nov. 3, 2015. She was freed at the end of 2017, after serving roughly her last three months in a Little Rock halfway house, meaning confinement for about 26 months of her 30-month sentence. She was ordered to make $31,000 restitution — restitution is a provision to which Files has also agreed — but she's broke and living with family. It is a rare day when restitution is made in such cases, though it is routinely ordered.

Here's Files' plea agreement.

Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton has said the country has an under-incarceration problem. Perhaps he'd encourage that Files be made an example.

James Comey continues to troll the man who fired him

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 05:10 AM PST

The FBI investigated both presidential candidates in 2016. It spoke publicly with devastating impact about one of them, the one that won the popular vote but lost the electoral college.

For his subsequent labors, James Comey was sacked as FBI director by the winner.

Since then, Comey's Twitter feed has been something. As today on the forced ouster of the deputy director of the FBI as part of Donald Trump's attempted Justice Department putsch.

Baghdad Bob, by way of Arkansas

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 04:59 AM PST

Sarah Huckabee Sanders' defense of Donald Trump continues to recall the comic disavowal of reality for which  Saddam's propagandist Baghdad Bob was known. Her manner — derisive, sarcastic and resistant to the admission of error— recalls her parents, Mike and Janet Huckabee.

Monday, she said "no one" cares about contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign in 2016. Not a single person.

As the Washington Post points out, polls (which the Trump administration cites when they like them and scorns when they don't, sort of like news events) tell a different story, as in a recent Post/ABC poll:

* 49 percent of Americans believe Trump tried to interfere with the Russia investigation in a way that amounts to obstruction of justice.

* 26 percent believe there is "solid evidence" supporting their belief.

* Half of Americans believe the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

* Significant percentages of Trump's base — old, conservative white people — believe the Russian connection.

Writes Eugene Scott of Sanders' assertion:

While White House officials may believe that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia, they have some work to do to convince millions of Americans that there was no interaction between Trump's team and the team of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Does it matter? Does it matter that the Trump administration has gone to war against the FBI and Justice Department? Does it matter that there's no longer any dispute about the deep involvement (legal questions aside) of Trump and his family with Russian oligarchs and government actors and a fondness for Putin's style of government?

Can any of this be translated down the ballot in 2018, as Barack Obama translated so well for the Republican Party for eight years, down to the courthouses and city halls of Arkansas?

I fear the Russian specter doesn't create the fear and loathing that an unusual name and dark skin did (and still does in Arkansas, judging by our politicians' braying about overturning the environmental, human rights, justice, consumer protection, worker protection and other initiatives of Obama's time in office.)

But back to the White House secretary by way of LR Central and OBU:

She's in need of a Baghdad Bob equivalent. There was Hanoi Hannah. And Seoul Sue. And Tokyo Rose. Suggestions welcome.

Sen. Jake Files pleads guilty to fraud, money laundering charges

Posted: 29 Jan 2018 02:04 PM PST

State Sen. Jake Files, 45, a Fort Smith Republican, pleaded guilty in federal court today to charges of wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.

He apparently plans to resign his Senate seat.

Files' plea related to misuse of General Improvement Fund money appropriated by the legislature and pledging a forklift he did not own as collateral for a $56,700 bank loan.

Court documents say Files misspent state GIF money designated for a sports complex at Fort Smith that his construction company was supposed to build but never completed. He  admitted falsifying bids for a water line on that project that was awarded to an employee. She said she gave Files the money and used it to pay workers of his construction company as well as keeping some for himself.

The 40/29 summary:

Between August 2016 and December 2016, Files directed the Western Arkansas Economic Development District to award $46,500 in taxpayer [GIF] funds to the City of Fort Smith, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Files had submitted three fraudulent bids to the district to facilitate the release of the money.

Files then had an associate open a bank account for him under her name. When the money came into Fort Smith, that associate withdrew $11,900 in the form of a check to FFH Construction, Files' construction company. She withdrew the rest in cash, and then gave all the money to Files.

Files then put the check into his personal bank account.
Criminal charges had been expected. Files' financial troubles were well-known. They surfaced when he got a loan from a lobbyist, Bruce Hawkins, to help pay bills. The troubled sports project, multiple liens and the loss of his house to foreclosure have been among the Files-related headlines in recent months.

Files, a senator since 2011, had said he wouldn't seek re-election this year. He'll be sentenced after completion of a probation office report. But the fiscal session of the legislature is soon to begin. I've asked Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang for a comment about Files' continued service as an admitted felon. Files has been chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee and, in 2017, sponsored legislation that allowed fines and enhanced damages against people who make false claims to state and local government for payments.

UPDATE: Late in the afternoon, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced on Twitter

I have spoken with Senator Files today, and he has indicated that he plans to submit his resignation to my office in the coming days. After learning of his guilty plea to felony charges in federal court earlier Monday, I believe this is the appropriate decision

While I've known & respected the Files family for many years, it's essential that voters are able to trust elected officials to have the public's interest free from criminal conduct. Given today's news it's clear he will not be able to fulfill his obligations to his constituents.

His guilty plea had earlier prompted a renewed call from the Arkansas Democratic Party that he resign.

"We've called for Sen. Files resignation before, and today we're demanding it again," Rep. Michael John Gray, Democratic Party Chairman said. "In pleading guilty, Sen. Files is admitting to the corruption that he and the Republican party have denied for months. I call on Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb and Governor Asa Hutchinson to demand his resignation immediately. If Governor Hutchinson doesn't demand his resignation, he'll be turning his back on corruption."
Dismang responded to me later:

I understand the severity of Senator Files actions and that he has taken appropriate responsibility for those actions with today's plea agreement. I consider Jake a friend and I'll be praying for him and his family. Regarding his resignation, it is my understanding that Senator Files plans to resign and I'll be working with staff to make sure that the proper process is followed.
A special election  must be called by the governor to fill a vacancy. An initial queston would be whether political parties want a primary election to select a nominee or prefer to do so by a convention.

Files is the second legislator to plead guilty to a felony in the misuse of GIF money. Former Republican Rep. Micah Neal has pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme involving hundreds of thousands funneled to Ecclesia College, a church in Springdale. Former Republican Sen. Jon Woods has been charged in that case and is awaiting trial. In Files' plea agreement he agreed to the obvious in milions spent in GIF money, legislators had the say over where the money went.

Here are the particulars of the charges, filed in court today.

Files is being represented by a public defender. His plea agreement includes the acknowledgment of guilt and willingness to cooperate with the government. The government agrees not to object to a downward departure from sentencing guidelines for his cooperation. He's free on a $5,000 bond.

Files departure, as early as tomorrow, is a loss of a vote in support of the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare that the governor has dubbed Arkansas Works. Each year, the fight to continue program has had some drama because of a hard-core group of  Republicans that oppose any spending on the program. That debate undoubtedly will continue.