Arkansas lawmakers question whether water company employees acted as lobbyists

The Arkansas Ethics Commission will look at an email from some Central Arkansas Water Company employees and donations made by the company's CEO regarding whether they were lobbying.

The Joint Performance Review Committee agreed to turn the matters over to the ethics commission after Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, brought the committee an email from employees of the water company known as the Justice, Equity or Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Sullivan sponsored a bill during the 2023 legislative session that would have ended affirmative action in Arkansas. Senate Bill 71 did not pass the Legislature.

The email said the bill "promotes white supremacy."

"If you or someone you love is a woman, disabled, Black, veteran, Hispanic or Latinx, this bill will impact you loved ones," the email said.

Tad Bohannon, CEO of Central Arkansas Water, said he shut down the JEDI's ability to send out emails after discovering it.

"That is not their role," Bohannon told the committee. "That is not their purpose. That is not what they are supposed to do. But they wanted to say something about it so they sent out that email."

Sullivan said he had heard the bill went out to consumers, but Bohannon said the only record they have is it was sent to consumers.

"One of my concerns is, and I don't know the answer to this, you may not either, it sure appears they were a lobbying agency and they took it upon themselves when they did this email to consumers and to employees that they became lobbyists and provided lobbying efforts," Sullivan told Bohannon.

Legislators also questioned $118,525 in donations from the Central Arkansas Water Company to nonprofit organizations. The largest donation, $30,000, was made to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. Other organizations receiving money were the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, $10,000, and the Women's Foundation Arkansas, $15,525.

Bohannon said the money was distributed at his discretion, partly as a way to recruit new employees. Fifty-four of the company's 354 employees are eligible to retire this year, he said.

"I do think it is inappropriate that you have been able to spend $118,000 of rate payers money to be able to contribute to the entities of your choosing based on your own personal belief of what creates value," said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe.

Committee Chairman Kim Hammer said he wanted a list of nonprofits turned down for donations.

The Central Arkansas Water Company, located in Little Rock, serves 500,000 customers and is the largest water company in the state, Bohannon said.


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