Arkansas law prohibits Secretary of State Mark Martin from hiring outside lawyers, a Pulaski County circuit judge said Monday in a ruling that a Martin spokesman said would be appealed.
Martin had hired lawyers Chad Pekron and Joseph W. Price II to represent him in a lawsuit filed last month by liberal blogger Matt Campbell, but Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Monday granted a motion by Campbell to disqualify Pekron and Price.
Campbell had argued that Martin’s hiring of outside lawyers violated Arkansas Code Annotated 25-16-702, which states that “the attorney general shall be the attorney for all state officials, departments, institutions, and agencies” and that legal advice “for state officials, departments, institutions, and agencies shall be given by the attorney general and his or her assistants, and no special counsel shall be employed or additional expense paid for those services.”
The law allows the governor to authorize the hiring of outside counsel for a state official if the attorney general deems it necessary or declines a request to represent the official, but Fox found that neither of those exceptions applied.
The law also states that any person violating the provisions of this section shall be subject to indictment and upon conviction fined in any sum not less than $200 nor more than $2,000 and, upon proper proceedings, removed from office.
“We are drafting an appeal as we speak,” Martin spokesman Alex Reed said Monday. He declined to comment further.
Campbell, who alleges in his lawsuit that Martin did not adequately comply with a Freedom of Information request, called Monday’s ruling “the right decision.”
Martin’s office “had a little over $100,000 in legal fees to outside counsel in the last fiscal year,” he said. “This is the only secretary of state to ever go out on his own and hire outside counsel instead of using the attorney general since the statute was passed in 1933.”
Reed has said previously that Martin’s office has hired outside legal counsel at least six times.
The state Democratic Party issued a statement Monday accusing Martin, a Republican, of spending state tax dollars illegally.
“Secretary Mark Martin has abused Arkansas tax dollars since he was elected, but today’s ruling showed Mark Martin’s complete disregard for the law,” party spokeswoman Candace Martin said. “This indictable offense deserves being referred to a prosecutor so Mark Martin can answer to the full degree of the law for his irresponsible and reckless actions against the people of Arkansas.”
Candice Martin also noted that the outside lawyers the secretary of state has hired in the past include former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, now a Republican candidate for governor, who represented Mark Martin in a lawsuit over the redrawing of legislative districts.
“This also raises huge questions about Asa Hutchinson’s involvement in Mark Martin’s illegal activities,” she said. “Will Asa return the Arkansas tax dollars paid to his law firm that violate Arkansas law?”
Hutchinson told the Arkansas News Bureau on Monday that he believed his representation of Martin was appropriate because Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat who was also named as a defendant in the redistricting lawsuit, had “an obvious conflict of interest.”
“We worked closely with the attorney general through the course of that,” he said.
Also Monday, Fox struck the answer to the lawsuit that Pekron and Price had filed on Martin’s behalf. The judge gave the secretary of state 20 days to file a new answer, to be prepared either by his in-house counsel or the attorney general’s office.
No trial date has been set in the lawsuit.