Arkansas state senator to repay $7,000 earned as part-time public defender

State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, has offered to repay the salary he received as a part-time public defender at the Arkansas Commission of Public Defenders and it’s about $6,000, Commission Executive Director Gregg Parrish told state lawmakers on Tuesday.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Parrish said he followed up with commission employees and was told the amount would be $7,327.33 in salary.

Parrish disclosed Garner’s offer in response to a question from Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, during a meeting of the Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee.

The subcommittee later recommended that the Legislative Council on Friday authorize the use of $4.5 million of U.S. federal bailout funds each for the commission of public defenders and prosecutors to continue employing and hiring. attorneys to help reduce the backlog of cases in state courts.

Without using a lawmaker’s name, Ingram said a state legislator was ineligible to also serve as a public defender under state law and “how did that happen, I scratch my head”.

He asked Parrish if that person had been paid around $9,000 by the public defender’s commission.

Parrish told lawmakers he believed the lawmaker was paid about $6,000 by the public defender’s commission, not about $9,000.

“Senator Garner contacted me specifically to try to arrange to repay this money himself,” he said.

Parrish said he met with the state’s Office of Personnel Management about a process for that to happen.

“I owe Senator Garner a phone call right now,” he added.

Afterward, Garner declined to comment in a brief phone interview on the offer to repay the public defender’s commission or why he resigned as public defender.

Parrish said in a written statement on Tuesday afternoon, “Senator Garner called me and said he wanted to refund the money.

“He asked me to put together the numbers of what he owed,” he said. “I need to talk to him further to provide him with the exact amount and discuss with him how he wants to make the payment. There are no expenses, just a salary. I have no correspondence with him on this. as we spoke on the phone when he called me I plan to send him something later this week.

State records show Garner began working in April as a part-time public defender for 30 hours a week with a starting salary of $60,000 a year.

Garner began working with the commission of public defenders, effective April 12, and his resignation took effect June 6, said Alex Johnston, chief of staff for the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Garner wrote in an email dated June 3 to Parrish and Director of Public Defender Darren Nelson in the 13th Judicial District that “Effective immediately, I resign from my position on the Public Defender’s Commission of the Arkansas.

“Thank you for this opportunity and please let me know if I can help you move forward,” Garner wrote in the email to Parrish and Nelson.

Parrish said Garner resigned after Parrish sent him a Blue Hog Report blog post outlining the allegations against Garner. The Blue Hog report suggested Garner likely violated Arkansas Code Annotated 21-1-402, a law that prohibits officials elected to “constitutional office” from working for a state agency while in office.

“Constitutional officer,” as defined in the statute, includes members of the Arkansas Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the governor and other elected officials. “State agency” encompasses a sample of entities, including state commissions.

Garner, a former aide to U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, has served in the state Senate since 2017 and has become a vocal critic of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

In January, he announced he would not run again this year and instead planned to expand his legal practice and help people in the southern Arkansans “reform the justice system.” Garner’s term as state senator will end in January.

In an email dated June 2 to Parrish, Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report wrote that “unless there is something I and others are forgetting, it would appear that hiring Trent Garner by the Union County Public Defender’s Office while still a State Senator would violate Ark. Code Ann. 21-1-204, and such a violation is potentially a [Class] Crime D.”

In a June 3 email to Garner, Parrish wrote, “Reading the article, my first thought was that Mr. [Matt] Campbell thought you were a full-time public defender,” and the commission relied on an attorney general’s 2003 advisory opinion, which allowed a state official to also be a public defender.

Parrish said he took some time to review the law cited in the article and emailed the public defenders commission liaison at the attorney general’s office asking for his opinion.

“Apparently the law was changed in 2017, the relevant part being the change of the word ‘may’ to ‘shall not’ when it comes to an elected official also maintaining a job in the state,” he said. he wrote in his June 3 email to Garner. . “While there are exceptions to this requirement, I can’t find one that suits your situation.”

Parrish asked Garner by mail to review the law and share his thoughts.

“I want you to continue in this position, provided we can follow the law,” he wrote in his June 3 email. “If we cannot find a legal exception to this problem, your employment with the [Arkansas Public Defender Commission] will have to finish.”

In March, the Legislative Joint Budget Committee authorized the transfer of $1 million each from the state’s Restricted Reserve Fund to the Arkansas Commission of Public Defenders and the Coordinator of the Attorney’s Office to hire 45 additional attorneys each in an effort to reduce the backlog of cases in state courts amid the covid-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, the U.S. Bailout Steering Committee approved requests from the Public Defenders Commission and the Office of the District Attorney’s Coordinator for $4.5 million each in U.S. Bailout funds to continue their work to reduce the judicial backlog.

The commission and the office of the prosecutor’s coordinator each have about $400,000 in restricted state reserve funds and are expected to run out of those funds this fall and will have to fire those attorneys without additional funding, Paul Louthian, Comptroller and Deputy Director from the state Department of Finance and Administration, the steering committee said. The funding requested by the U.S. bailout will allow both the commission and the prosecutor’s coordinator’s office to continue to employ and hire lawyers to continue working on reducing the court backlog, he said. said last week.

Hutchinson appointed the steering committee — made up of nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers — in May 2021 to recommend the best uses of the plan’s $1.57 billion in state fiscal stimulus funds. US Bailout Fund and $158 million in US Bailout Capital Project Funds. . In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion US Bailout Act, designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

The steering committee also on Thursday approved the State Department of Agriculture’s request to use $300 million of U.S. federal bailout funds for water, wastewater and irrigation projects in the United States. ‘Arkansas.

Subcommittee co-chair Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said the subcommittee would consider the request when it meets next month. He said he wanted to give lawmakers more time to consider the request before the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s anything against the projects,” he said.

Governor Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement, “I hope that after ALC members have had more time to review the application, they will approve the funding so that the process for these much-needed projects can begin.

“The Water and Wastewater Task Force has developed eligibility criteria and the Ministry of Agriculture is working on an implementation plan to move quickly once funding becomes available,” he said. declared.

Information for this article was provided by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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