Beebe Councilman-elect David Pruitt said Friday that he’s “a little heartbroken” that the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a White County Circuit Court ruling that he “is ineligible to hold the public office of alderman” because of a 2016 misdemeanor election laws violation.
Justice Shawn A. Womack issued the majority opinion Thursday after Pruitt had appealed Circuit Judge Craig Hannah’s decision Oct. 30, the Friday before the Nov. 3 general election.
Although Hannah ruled in favor of the petition against Pruitt’s eligibility by plaintiffs that included incumbent Linda Anthony, Pruitt’s Ward 1, Position 2 opponent, he also had ruled that the votes for Pruitt in the election should count in case of an appeal. Pruitt received 1,546 votes (59.69 percent) to Anthony’s 1,044 (40.31).
Anthony had been joined in the petition against Pruitt by fellow Council members Lee McLane, Derrek Goff and Tracy Lightfoot and Beebe Mayor Mike Roberson. They had asked that Pruitt be ruled ineligible and removed from the ballot because he pleaded guilty before then-White County Circuit Judge Robert Edwards to a misdemeanor violation for voting twice in the 2016 primaries.
Pruitt, who was a Beebe councilman at the time, paid a fine and said he was told that his record would be expunged, allowing him to run for public office again.
However, Womack wrote, “This court has concluded that the framers of the Arkansas Constitution intended for an ‘infamous crime’ ... to include crimes involving elements of deceit and dishonesty. ... Additionally, infamous crimes are those that impugn the integrity of the office and directly impact the person’s ability to serve as an elected official.”
“Arkansas Code Annotated section 7-1-103 lists misdemeanors for election-related offenses. Pruitt pled guilty to subsection (a)(19(A), which states, ‘No person shall vote knowing himself or herself not entitled to vote.’”
Concerning sealing Pruitt’s record, Womack wrote that “the General Assembly reserved the authority to limit the effect of sealing in certain circumstances. With the inclusion of subsection (b)(2)(A), the General Assembly deliberately chose to exclude from public office all persons found guilty of election-related misdemeanors, regardless of whether the record is later sealed.”
Justice Rhonda K. Wood concurred without opinion.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, Pruitt said he just wanted to do what’s right for the city and the citizens of Beebe.
“Here’s the bottom line, the people overwhelmingly voted for me through all the negative ads, the articles, the lawsuit, and the people still stood with me. I am thankful for that,” Pruitt said. “I don’t know what the next step is, but I’m no quitter. I never give up. I just have to pray about it and see where God is going to lead me because I really felt led to run for the City Council.”
Pruitt called the Supreme Court decision “their opinion of how they read the law.”
“I am not talking bad about the Supreme Court. They all have their own opinion,” he said. “I know there’s three more; three of the justices might have went another way, their opinion would have been different, but that’s OK,” he said. “I am a little heartbroken, but I’m OK.
“Like I say, I’m no quitter. I don’t give up on anything, especially if I feel I need to do something. All I wanted to be was a servant for our city and our citizens and put our city in the right direction.”
He said he believes “the citizens served notice” to the council because “they voted out every incumbent.”
He said he believes that Anthony will now retain her position after her term ends in December, but “it’s never over ’til it’s over. I don’t know what my next avenue is maybe a pardon, I don’t know. I’m just praying for our city and our leadership even though they all came against me.”
Pruitt called the last-minute petition against him “pretty sneaky.”
“I am really saddened that Judge Hannah wouldn’t of called them out on it, that they used him and his court to do this four days before the election,” he said.
As far as whether Anthony will retain her position in January despite losing the election, Robertson said he is seeking guidance from Beebe City Attorney Randy Grice and expects a response in the coming week.
“We have talked to him and he is drafting a response,” Robertson said.
According to White County Election Commission Chairman Robert Allen, who certified the election last week and said Pruitt was “duly elected” since he had not receive a court order or heard from the Arkansas Supreme Court, said that what normally happens when there is a vacancy on a council “is that you either appoint a vacancy or you have a special election.”
Anthony told The Daily Citizen on Friday that she has not really heard anything so far concerning her position, but responded to social media criticism about petitioning the court.
“My thing is that people are on the website trying to bash and say the government is corrupt,” Anthony said, “but my thing is that one of the newspapers started to say that he [Pruitt] was ineligible to run during the election, so after so many times of that being in there, I checked into it and that’s what happened.
“Judge Hannah made the ruling that he was ineligible to run, so therefore if he [Pruitt] didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to be eligible to run, that was not my fault and I didn’t have any other opposition, so as far as my concern that was his decision. If people are telling you, you are ineligible to run, I think it is wise to check into it ... .”
Anthony said she doesn’t feel that she should be seen as the “bad guy here,” and that the position should still be hers since Pruitt wasn’t eligible.
“ ... And if there was another person on the ballot, then I say, ‘Yeah, we should decide that way,’ but as far as I’m concerned, I won because he was ruled ineligible by Judge Hannah” Then, after the votes were allowed to be counted to let Pruitt appeal, “the state Supreme Court felt the same way as Judge Hannah, so as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t have had any opposition, so that would still be my place, it would be my position.”
Lana Fraser, Pruitt’s lead attorney, told The Daily Citizen after the opinion was issued that “it’s a sad day for Beebe citizens who elected Mr. Pruitt to govern them. They are the ones whose voices were silenced by this opinion.”
“City Council members and the mayor of Beebe used a last-minute legal maneuver to eliminate the competition and guarantee their voice was the only one that was heard,” Fraser said. “In doing so, they usurped the election process and all that it entails. It is undoubtedly a great disappointment for all of us who believe in David Pruitt, a true public servant who wanted nothing more that to serve the city he lives and works in.
“On election day, Mr. Pruitt was working at his tire business, just as he does every day, awaiting voters to speak and they did so, loudly. Mr. Pruitt won the election by a landslide.”
Fraser said she feels that a special election should be held to fill the position because “clearly, Linda Anthony is not the person the citizens of Beebe want to govern them and she was not elected to office.”
“David Pruitt has now been disqualified by judicial decision. Rather than Ms. Anthony being appointed by default, the best remedy for this situation is to hold a special election, then perhaps the citizens of Beebe will be allowed to participate in the democratic election process they have been denied,” she said. “We expect David Pruitt will continue to be a vital leader in the city of Beebe as he has been for many years.”