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Little Rock mayoral hopeful Warwick Sabin was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Arkansas Ethics Commission on Friday after a complaint filed earlier this month accused Sabin's campaign of violating a state statute.

The Ethics Commission launched an investigation into Sabin's state-registered "exploratory committee," which the Democrat had set up July 25 to raise money for his 2018 campaign after he announced his mayoral ambitions July 10.

Arkansas Code Annotated 7-6-216 allows such committees to begin raising campaign money no more than two years before an election.

The commission found that the creation of Sabin's committee clearly fell within that two-year time frame, and dismissed the state ethics complaint during the commission's regular monthly meeting Friday.

[DOCUMENT: Read full Arkansas Ethics Commission letter to Warwick Sabin]

A 20-year-old Little Rock ordinance, however, also places restrictions on finances for municipal campaigns by limiting fundraising to a six-month period between June 1 and Dec. 1 of an election year. The complaint against Sabin also accuses him of violating that city ordinance.

"There may be a problem somewhere, but it's not with us," said Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan, whose agency only enforces state laws.

The complaint, which was filed Aug. 7 and signed by Eugene Clifford, characterized Sabin's exploratory campaign committee as "subterfuge" and asked for Sabin to be penalized according to Little Rock's ordinance and forced to return money he has collected.

Sabin's campaign spokesman at the time denied any wrongdoing and called the complaint a "desperate and misguided attempt" to slow the campaign.

On Friday, the Sabin camp maintained that position.

"As we've said all along, potential candidates have the right under state law to form an exploratory committee as they consider the possibility of running for office," Sabin's campaign spokesman said in a written statement. "Warwick Sabin's exploratory committee was correctly formed under state statute and follows all applicable state laws and regulations for contributions, expenditures, and financial disclosures."

The ethics complaint has prompted City Attorney Tom Carpenter to review Little Rock's rules in order to ascertain whether the Sabin For Mayor Exploratory Committee had sidestepped the city ordinance.

Carpenter said Friday that he had not yet come to any conclusion.

At issue is an ordinance, Sec. 2-387(a), passed in the late 1990s that restricts the municipal campaign fundraising period in the city to six months. But weighing the authority of that ordinance versus that of the state's two-year fundraising statute has become a legal tangle that pits state authority against the city's rulemaking ability.

Carpenter said case law shows a precedent for ruling in both directions: in favor of local ordinances being more restrictive than state statute, and in favor of state statutes pre-empting local ordinances.

Moreover, a decision either way may spawn further questions, he said. For instance, if the city can apply the more restrictive six-month fundraising rule to candidates, would that also apply to exploratory committees?

Arkansas law allows exploratory committees to raise money for potential political candidates and to ultimately transfer the money to the candidate. Sabin is identified as his committee's chairman and the person who will receive the money "upon becoming a candidate."

Under the city's Code of Ethics, however, municipal office holders -- including the mayor and all members of the Board of Directors -- are prohibited from forming exploratory committees before re-election campaigns. So if it is determined that exploratory committees are allowed to raise funds before the six-month period set by the ordinance, challengers could be given an unfair advantage in municipal elections in the city.

In this case, the incumbent is Mayor Mark Stodola, who did not return phone calls Friday.

Carpenter said that once he reaches a determination of how the city's ordinance applies, "some sort of judicial determination" is likely.

"Because it's either going to stop the use of a process for Little Rock elected city officials, or it is going to create an inequality between those who are incumbent city officials and those who are running for city offices," he said.

Metro on 08/26/2017

Print Headline: Sabin committee heeds state law, ethics panel says

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