Leader Blues

Friday, June 16, 2006

SATURDAY EDITORIAL>> The Lord as your co-pilot

Providence dealt mercifully with Gov. Huckabee last week when one of the twin engines of the Cessna Citation that was ferrying him, his wife, daughter and aides to a political gathering in North Carolina conked out near Chattanooga.

The pilot landed the jet with one engine, got the plane repaired and then carried him on to North Carolina for his (presidential) campaign speech. Huckabee shared his close call with spellbound North Carolina Republicans and the whole thing attracted national attention.

The Lord works in wondrous ways.

But could the divine purpose be something besides saving the governorís life so that he can become president?

The governorís miraculous escape attracted the attention of people over at the Arkansas Times, who were curious about the airplane because the paper has been scolding the governor for using Arkansas State Police aircraft, property of Arkansas taxpayers, for personal and political travel the past few years. All that Huckabee would say was that it was not a State Police plane.

But through reports at the Chattanooga airport, the newspaper traced the airplane to New Hampshire, where it was registered to the name of a company domiciled in that state that has won a series of contracts with the Arkansas Department of Human Services under Gov. Huckabee.

The 2006 contract is for about $8.5 million. The payment is for housing and ministering to troubled youngsters at a religious camp called The Lordís Ranch in rural Randolph County near the Missouri border. The Lordís Ranch, some of you may remember, has had a turbulent relationship with the state government for more than 15 years, but it has gotten better and better since Huckabee took over in 1996. An $8.5 million annual contract suggests that the relationship has progressed beautifully.

Now the governorís providential flight is looking less divine. Ethical and legal questions abound. Was The Lordís Ranch properly reimbursed for the trip (chartering a Citation SII ordinarily costs $1,500 to $1,900 an hour) or was it a gift to the governor? State law bars people who do not have a family or long-standing relationship with a state official from making gifts of more than $100 to him or else it becomes an unlawful payment for his public duties.

The Associated Press put the question to Huckabee Thursday. He said there was no problem and that he was always careful to avoid conflicts of interest with outfits that did business with the government he runs. Southeastern Asset Management, the outfit that owns The Lordís Ranch, gave the jet trip, he explained, as an in-kind contribution to his political-action committee, Hope for America, which he incorporated in Virginia. So, you see, itís perfectly all right. There is no quid pro quo, no back scratching.

No, these little arrangements are never all right, no matter what committee you run them through and no matter if the governor is Huckabee, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Would Southeastern Management be flying the governor around the country to political gatherings (Huckabee acknowledged that this might not be the first instance) if it was not doing a handsome amount of business with the Huckabee administration? To ask the question is to answer it.

Gov. Huckabee said he never approaches The Lordís Ranch people or others to fly him around the country. But how do they find out when he is going to a political event somewhere and wants a free ride? The answer must be divine providence.
Sixteen years ago, in response to widespread concern about abuse and neglect at child-care facilities, the state Child Care Review Board revoked The Lordís Ranchís license for numerous violations of state rules, including improper restraints of children.

The board subsequently gave it a provisional license, but in 1994 the ranch refused to allow state inspectors in, and in 1996 the state cited the home for compliance problems with health and safety standards.

After Huckabee became governor, he appointed the manager of the ranch to the Child Welfare Agency Review Board, where he still serves, and the homeís psychiatric director to the state Psychology Board. With the governorís assistance, the ranch is now in good standing with the agency and won its first state Medicaid contract in 2000.

The contract has grown from $140,460 in 2000 to $8.5 million. Coincidence: Between 1996 and 2000 Lordís Ranch officials gave $8,650 to Huckabeeís campaigns for governor. They gave to his wifeís campaign for secretary of state and to the Arkansas Republican Party.

And hereís another coincidence: Next week, a legislative committee will probe concerns about billing and undue influence on juvenile judges by The Lordís Ranch and a few other ďfaith-basedĒ providers of childrenís services to have children diagnosed and sent to those facilities.

But someone checked and found that more than a third of the legislative committee members, like the governor, have received contributions from Lordís Ranch officials.

Donít you love state government?