Since setting his sights on the White House, those supporters, their families and their companies have kept on giving. They contributed nearly $161,000 to a pre-presidential campaign account and Huckabee's official campaign committee since late last year, according to state and federal campaign finance records.
Huckabee’s gifts became issues in his two gubernatorial campaigns as his opponents tried to stoke voter doubts about his judgment and ethics. As he surges in Iowa and nationally, Huckabee’s primary rivals are expected to make similar arguments.
Huckabee’s personal attorney, Kevin Crass, was designated by his campaign to respond to Politico. It’s “a coincidence” that there’s some overlap between the list of gift givers and appointments, said Crass, adding Huckabee “understood that you can’t trade appointments for gifts and that didn’t happen.”
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Most of the posts Huckabee’s benefactors landed were on unpaid boards and commissions. Not all of the gifts came before the appointments — several came from old friends and there’s no clear evidence of any quid pro quo.
Still, his annual hauls were attention-grabbing. In one year, the value of the gifts given to Huckabee amounted to more than $112,000 — nearly double his $67,000 state salary. And he wrangled with the state Ethics Commission over gift rules, with the commission twice finding he’d broken them (one violation was later overturned).
Huckabee twice sued the commission, once seeking a statute of limitations on ethics complaints and in another suit he sought to narrow the scope of prohibited gifts. Ironically, he was represented before the ethics commission by Crass and one other lawyer who donated their services — as gifts.
Huckabee later named one of the attorneys, Tom Mars, to head the Arkansas State Police. At the time, the job paid $77,000 a year, which Mars said was a “very significant pay cut.” Mars, now general counsel for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, is backing the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom he worked as a law clerk during her days as an attorney in Little Rock. He’s given $2,300 to her campaign.
Crass served on Huckabee’s 143-person volunteer transition team when he became governor, an assignment he described as “nice” but not “anything that was coveted or prestigious.” He and his wife have contributed $4,600 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
Crass estimated that Huckabee made more than 1,000 appointments during his decade as governor, and that he naturally looked to his Republican allies. The fact that some of them had given the former governor gifts also is a product of Southern culture, he said. “He came from a background where people exchanged gifts and supported one another,” said Crass. “That’s just the Southern way.”
Game, fish and political contributions
Huckabee is an avid hunter and fisherman, and his appointees to the state’s influential Game and Fish Commission provide a window into the layered relationship he had with supporters. At least four Huckabee appointees to the seven-member commission had given the governor gifts and are now counted among his presidential donors.
Ronald Pierce is one of Huckabee’s longtime fishing buddies and the owner of a bass boat manufacturer. From 1997 to 2000, Pierce loaned Huckabee a pair of boats that today would retail for about $40,000 each. He also gave Huckabee and his wife, Janet, jackets and rain suits.
Huckabe named one of the loaner boats “State Business” because, he once joshed, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it allowed his secretary to tell callers “He’s out on State Business” when he was on fishing trips.
After Huckabee’s gifts drew some bad press, Huckabee became concerned that “it would kind of look bad” if Pierce loaned him a new boat, Pierce told Politico. So Pierce’s company pulled its loaners and sold the governor a new boat — albeit at a reduced price usually reserved for professional fishermen whose patronage is good marketing. “The governor driving your boat on the lake is going to help you,” Pierce explained.
Huckabee last year tapped Pierce for a seat on the Game and Fish Commission and this year Pierce and his wife gave $4,600 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign. Pierce said he accepted the appointment reluctantly, and that it wasn’t linked to the gifts. His campaign contribution is based on his long friendship and support for Huckabee, he said.
“A lot of people tried to use him. I don’t know that he did anything for them,” Pierce said. “You couldn’t buy that man off if you wanted to.”
Among Huckabee’s other Game and Fish Commission appointees was Sheffield Nelson, a lawyer and two-time Republican gubernatorial nominee who gave Huckabee hunting and fishing trips and split the cost of a $1,400 turkey mount. Nelson and his wife contributed a total of $14,600 to Hope for America, an account the governor set up in Virginia before launching his presidential bid, and Huckabee’s campaign.
Lester Sitzes, a childhood friend of Huckabee, also landed a seat on the commission. Huckabee has said he promised Sitzes a spot on the commission when the two were teens. Sitzes grew up to become a dentist, and gave his longtime friend a shotgun, a pistol and $250 worth of dental care. Sitzes and his family donated nearly $8,000 to Hope for America and Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
Finally, George Dunklin Jr., co-owner with his sister of a farm company, gave Huckabee a $300 hunting trip before getting a seat on the commission. Dunklin said the trip didn’t help him land the commission seat; in fact, Huckabee’s Democratic predecessor had appointed Dunklin to a different board. “I wanted to take him duck hunting. It’s really just as simple as that,” said Dunklin. He has donated $2,000 to Huckabee’s campaign and his firm gave $10,000 to Hope for America.
Other benefactors kept on giving
The fuzzy line between appointees and supporters is echoed in other Huckabee appointments.
Jim Lindsey, a developer and former Razorbacks football star, gave Huckabee a hunting-related gift — duck mounts — in 1998. The following year he was named to the board of trustees for the University of Arkansas. Lindsey contributed $2,300 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign as well as $100,000 to Hope for America.
Bryan Jeffrey, a Little Rock CPA, gave Huckabee free accounting services for one year, and the next year he was named to the state’s Development Finance Authority. Jeffrey contributed $2,300 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign and his firm works for Huckabee’s presidential campaign, earning more than $70,000 in the first nine months of this year.
Ron Fuller, a lobbyist who was Huckabee’s top fundraiser and paid for his wife to scuba dive in Puerto Rico, later got appointed to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Last year, Fuller’s company contributed $1,000 to Hope for America.
Jerry Davis, the late CEO of a food wholesaler, and his wife gave the Huckabees more than $5,400 in gifts, including an $800 cashmere and fox cape, a pair of $600 watches, $1,000 cuff links and a suit. Davis was named to the state police commission. He died in 2004, but this yea his widow, Shirley Davis, gave $2,300 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
William Ferren, who founded and is chairman of an Arkansas oil company that gave Huckabee a suit, was appointed to the Correction and Community Punishment Board. He gave $750 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
In all, Huckabee accepted more than $54,000 in clothes for himself and his family during his decade as governor. And the lion’s share — $25,000 — came from Jennings Osborne, a colorful businessman who was by far the most generous gift giver to the Huckabees.
Osborne, whose website describes him as “Little Rock's own version of Elvis” gave Huckabee, his family and staff more than $60,000 worth of gifts, including $11,000 in flowers, nearly $12,000 worth of pastries and more than $25,000 in clothes.
Huckabee appointed Osborne to a seat on the commission that oversees the stadium where the University of Arkansas football team plays some home games, and Osborne and his wife contributed $4,100 to Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
Osborne, who was rebuked by the Arkansas Supreme Court for an extravagant Christmas light display he set up annually at his home, has said he expects nothing for his generosity.
Just gifts, no campaign cash
Huckabee also gave appointments to givers of less extravagant gifts who have yet to appear in his campaign donation reports.
He accepted a barbecue grill from a resort owned by the family of a man he appointed to the state’s State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.
He accepted as gifts seemingly common services, including car repairs. He reported receiving free eye care and “eye wear” from an optometrist and an ophthalmologist — both of whom he tapped for spots on the boards overseeing their respective professions.
In 1996, when the governor’s mansion was being refurbished, Huckabee received free “general contracting and interior design services” from designer Georg Anderson and furnishings from cotton magnate Charles Adams. The next year, Huckabee named Anderson, as well as Adams’ wife, Myrna Vine Adams, to the Arkansas Governor's Mansion Commission.
When Adam's furniture gift, worth more than $70,000, was first revealed, Huckabee claimed it was his family’s to keep. He backed down after a lawsuit was filed over the furniture and his family’s use of a $60,000-a-year fund, which the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported had been used to pay for pizza, a doghouse, a magazine subscription and pantyhose for Janet Huckabee.
The suit was settled with the furniture still in the mansion and Huckabee, while admitting no wrongdoing, acknowledging a dispute “regarding reimbursements.”