White County Circuit Court Judge Craig Hannah ruled Friday that votes are to be counted for a Beebe City Council candidate who pleaded guilty four years ago to a misdemeanor election law violation to set up an appeal of him being disqualified from holding public office.
Beebe Ward 1, Position 2 candidate David Pruitt’s eligibility to hold office was challenged in court by five city officials, including his opponent, Councilwoman Linda Anthony, and another Beebe resident. Pruitt, then a member of the City Council, voted twice in the 2016 general election, pleaded guilty to the reduced charge, paid a fine and resigned from the council.
The other plaintiffs were Mayor Mike Robertson, Council members Derrek Goff, Tracy Lightfoot and Lee McLane and resident Jake Smith.
Hannah said he made his decision to allow the votes to be counted because “if I didn’t allow them to be counted, then there’s no reason for an appeal because if you win the appeal [and] there is no votes, you can’t tell.”
“The question is whether the sealing of the record would allow him to run,” he said. “That statute says that you were restored to all your rights; there’s another section of the law that says otherwise and I found that there was another section that said that he couldn’t run, but it has not been addressed by the [state] Supreme Court on that specific issue.”
Hannah, who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs regarding entering a declaratory judgment that Pruitt is ineligible for the office, said Pruitt could appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court because this is a local election.
“Then the Supreme Court would direct us what to do,” he said. “They would either affirm my decision or overturn it and then they would direct us how they want us to proceed. It is just a question of law.
“I guess if they would overturn me, then they would direct that the votes would be counted and if he is the winner, he gets to take office. That’s what I would expect would happen.”
Pruitt’s attorneys filed a notice of appeal shortly after Hannah’s decision, in which he did not grant a writ of mandamus requesting that Pruitt’s name not be on the ballot, the votes for him not be counted and that he not be certified by election officials.
“The petitioners asked for him [Pruitt] to be taken off the ballot and for the votes not to be counted. Well, I couldn’t take him off the ballot because the ballots have already been printed,” Hannah said. “I could have ruled in favor of them and not allowed the votes to be counted.”
Concerning the question of certifying the results, which would take place Nov. 13, Hannah said to his understanding, the Supreme Court will be asked to speed up the process to expedite a hearing after the election.
“Once it is certified, I think it’s done,” Hannah said. “If I’m his attorney, I’m going to do my best to get this thing heard before the 13th and the decision because it’s a whole other can of worms. I think once it is certified, that’s it, it’s finished.
“There is another case in Pulaski County that was mentioned during the hearing with similar facts but not exactly the same thing and that judge [Mackie Pierce] did the same as I did and let the votes be counted just because the possibility of appeal.”
If Anthony wins the election over Pruitt, Hannah said Pruitt could still on his appeal find out if he could run in the future.
“The Supreme Court could say you are eligible to run in the future,” Hannah said. “That would be the only issue remaining, can he run in the future?’
If Pruitt were to win the vote, Hannah said he would think the Supreme Court would speed up the process and issue a ruling before Nov. 13. “If he were to lose the vote, there is no hurry.”
White County Election Commission Chairman Robert Allen said Friday afternoon that the election officials currently plan to confirm the results, whether Pruitt is elected or not.
“Unless the judge orders us [to do] something we’re not supposed to do, we’ve got to certify the election like we normally do,” Allen said.
He said without a court order, which he had not received as of Friday evening, if Pruitt wins, he would be certified.
Hannah said during the court proceedings that he had some concern about the timing of the petition, which was filed Oct. 23 in 1st Division court, but was moved to his 3rd Division courtroom because the judge was unavailable. The petition included White County Clerk Carla Barnett as a defendant.
Pruitt’s lead attorney Lana Fraser, of the Law Office of Lana M. Fraser in Little Rock, said it was important to “let the people speak.” She said “he has not been elected yet” and she mentioned the concern over “taking the voice away from people, two days before election.” Fraser said “Mr. Pruitt hired myself and my law firm. Really the only statement we care to make at this time is that our client’s votes, any votes cast for David Pruitt will be counted. We anticipate that he will be qualified as an eligible candidate if elected.”
Appellate attorney Cory Bates of the Tellez Law Firm of North Little Rock [a separate law firm from Fraser’s] said afterward that Pruitt’s appeal is based on the declaratory judgment.
“The issue I think that’s pretty big with what happened today is essentially the judge denied the petition, he said he granted it but he denied all of the relief requested in their petition for writ of mandamus, those are the things they were asking for like keeping his name off the ballot and if he stays on the ballot, not counting the votes and the last thing was not certifying the votes that he got,” Bates said. “The judge said no to all three of those things. He granted their declaratory judgement petition saying that he essentially wasn’t qualified to be a candidate or to hold an office position.”
“We really don’t have an objection to the writ of mandamus stuff because he pretty much said that they didn’t get any of the relief that they asked for.”
Fraser added, “We anticipate that he [Pruitt] will be qualified as an eligible candidate if elected.”
The Beebe officials and residents’ attorney, Christopher J. O’Neill, said concerning the decision that “if Ms. Anthony wins, it’s kind of a mute point as to this election, but if Mr. Pruitt wanted the Supreme Court to clarify whether or not he’s eligible on a future public offices then he is going to have to appeal and the Supreme Court will have to either overturn or affirm Judge Hannah.
“The judge declared under a current Arkansas law, Mr. Pruitt is not eligible to hold public office in the state of Arkansas. He is allowing the votes to be counted and the reason I suspect he is doing that is because if Mr. Pruitt did appeal and win, and on appeal they find he can hold public office, that way the votes are already tallied in this case.”
In background information about the case, O’Neill previously told The Daily Citizen “the statute that he [Pruitt] specifically pled guilty to states that if he’s found guilty under that statute, he is ineligible to hold public office.”
O’Neill also told Hannah in court Friday that he appreciated him hearing this on “an expedited motion.”
Pruitt, who did not speak in court, previously said that he accepted the plea deal for voting twice, affording him a reduced conviction, from a felony to a misdemeanor because the offer came with promise of expungement which was understood to seal his record, making him again eligible to hold public office.
O’Neill has said that “under state law, the expunged conviction many not alleviate his ineligibility to hold the seat of councilman.”
In an earlier interview with The Daily Citizen, Pruitt said, “What I did was go to early voting [in 2016], I voted early and when the election came up for president back in 2016, I went in to City Hall and I voted. It was an honest mistake but I was prosecuted for it. The city pushed the issue and had me prosecuted so I stepped down from the City Council because I didn’t want to bring negativity to the city. I got charged with a misdemeanor. What I did was I pleaded guilty. It was an honest mistake. I said I took full responsibility for it.”