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Shoffner’s troubles highlight need for qualified officeholder

The arrest of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner on federal extortion charges was not a complete surprise, although the process and new allegations were unexpected.

Shoffner had endured countless claims of mismanagement of her office, including a scathing legislative audit report last year regarding selling bonds before maturity and not following historical protocol of spreading the state’s business around to various brokers.

So after it was revealed the FBI was investigating, many believed an arrest eventually would happen. Those procedures usually involve a target letter and allowing the person accused of so-called white-collar crimes to turn himself/herself in at a certain time. This was different.

Authorities arrested Shoffner at her Newport home after witnessing her receive a $6,000 cash kickback that was delivered in a pie box. The charge sounds eerily similar to a scene with the corrupt prison warden in the movie “Shawshank Redemption.”

It appears Shoffner not only had mismanagement problems but some huge ethical lapses, too. The information filed against her alleges she accepted at least six such cash payments from a favored broker — two each at her home, at her Little Rock apartment and at the state Capitol.

One major point should not be missed: Shoffner was not qualified to do the job for which she was elected.

Shoffner was first elected in 2006, winning a Democratic primary runoff against Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s tax counsel, Mac Campbell. That was back when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the election. Shoffner’s experience consisted of three terms as a state House member from Newport and a career as a real estate agent.

Shoffner was fully eligible for the office to which she was elected. The only qualification in the state constitution is that the treasurer must be an Arkansas resident and cannot be “convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime.” Also — revealing the dated nature of our 1874 state constitution — no officeholder can be an atheist or have fought a duel in the last 10 years.

There is no requirement that the state treasurer or state auditor have any accounting or finance experience. Some prior officeholders have had such experience, but not all. Such basic experience seems almost implied; the treasurer is basically the state’s banker and the auditor is the state’s accountant.

Most would be surprised that there also is no requirement for the state attorney general to be a licensed attorney or even have any legal experience. A previous version of the state constitution from 1864 required that, but not the current one. An attorney general’s opinion by Mike Beebe in 2006 states “such a qualification is inherent in the very office itself, and required by the duties to be performed by him,” but there is no constitutional requirement for it.

It is up to the voters, then, to determine the requirements for office by voting for the candidate they deem most qualified. For the most part, that has worked well for the office of attorney general where, as best I can tell, a non-lawyer has never been elected.

It has not worked out as well for those elected treasurer or auditor. We know about Shoffner’s lack of pertinent experience. State Auditor is Charlie Daniels has no background in accounting or finance. He does have nearly three decades of experience as an elected constitutional officer and therefore enough wisdom to hire a competent staff and stay out of the way.

Let’s face it, not many voters pay attention to down-ballot races. People often get elected without voters focusing on qualifications.

The question left is whether positions such as treasurer and auditor should be elected positions. Maybe the functions could fall under the umbrella of the Department of Finance and Administration. That would allow qualified employees to be hired to do the job and to be held accountable.

The catch is that both positions are creations of the state constitution, so changing them would require a constitutional amendment. Perhaps in light of the charges against Shoffner, voters will see why a different approach is needed. In the meantime, maybe they will focus a bit more on the qualification of candidates.

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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.

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