Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

WED 5-24-6 EDITORIAL >> Bad, bad Huckster

Fourteen years into his public career, Gov. Huckabee still has the thinnest skin in politics. He detests criticism, and the steps that he takes to mute it are most often what get him into trouble. He cuts off access to a doughty weekly newspaper that dogs his every official slip. When something begins to smell in his administration, he brings the records of it into his office so that he can claim that it is off limits to the public and the media. The records become a part of the governor’s “working papers,” which are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Monday, the latter ploy got him sued, by none other than his favorite newspaper and most persistent admirer, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. The paper had little choice if it was to uphold the honor of the trade, although editor Griffin Smith grieved publicly that his paper had to sue the governor. He would have liked to work things out with Mr. Huckabee, he said.

But the governor’s stance on freedom of information had reached the ridiculous, and grave issues are at stake. One of his friends and appointees to the state Board of Parole, Larry Zeno, resigned last week after an internal investigation of alleged misbehavior. Huckabee had the investigative report (his spokesman says it was only an “inquiry,” which she says is something less than an “investigation”) brought into his office and he refuses to divulge either it or Zeno’s resignation letter. He says there were uncorroborated allegations and that he saw nothing in the report that would cause him to ask for Zeno’s resignation.

The matter could very well be harmless. No one knows. The Arkansas Times reported that the same board member was investigated a year ago for a compromising situation in which he left the impression with some people that he was willing to trade a clemency recommendation for an inmate for a bargain price on a diamond ring.

It is the very nature of representative government that the public is entitled to review such matters and evaluate whether their officials — in this case, the governor as well as the parole commissioner — did the right thing. Huckabee said it was no one’s business but his.

The legal issues are fairly stark, which is why we believe the governor will surrender these documents before trial or reach some accommodation that will cause the newspaper to abandon its petition to the court. The courts are apt to say very clearly that the working-papers doctrine that the governor employs so often is bogus. And then he will not be able to pull the trick again.

The working-papers exemption in the FOI act was intended to give the governor unwatched access to advice from his own staff members on policy questions. Huckabee has stretched that to include any document that happens to come physically into his office. His troubles have come when those documents, like his office emails on antismoking legislation before the recent special legislative session, get into the clutches of other government agencies. Then reporters or anyone else can get them. But generally the governor and his staff are very good at keeping secrets. Huckabee’s attorney also claims a privilege for the Zeno documents because it involves a personnel matter. But even those are subject to public disclosure if it involves a matter of public interest. This clearly is that. Let us hope that the governor and the newspaper stick to their guns for the few weeks that it will take for the courts to settle this vital issue once and forever.