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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

No, Asa Didn’t

A Democratic ad in the Arkansas governor’s race falsely accuses GOP nominee Asa Hutchinson of allowing wasteful spending of taxpayer funds for employee bonuses and a lavish “birthday party.” In fact, Hutchinson wasn’t running the agency in question, and wasn’t cited by the report that brought the expenditures to light.

The ad also says Hutchinson voted against a “tax relief” measure. But the bill in question mainly would have benefited workers who paid little or no federal income taxes in the first place.

The ad from Jobs and Opportunity, an affiliate of the Democratic Governors Association, aims to cut into Hutchinson’s lead in the polls over Democratic nominee Mike Ross. The ad went online June 12 and began airing in Little Rock June 13. It is just the latest in a campaign marked by exaggerations and misleading claims on both sides. In this case, the DGA blames Hutchinson for wasteful spending for which he was not actually responsible.

‘Huge Bonuses’

The narrator says, “No D.C. insider should allow huge taxpayer-funded bonuses to government bureaucrats, but Asa did.”

Well, no, Asa didn’t.

The ad refers to a report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security that found that the Transportation Security Administration awarded nearly $1.5 million in bonuses to 88 TSA executives for their performance during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2003. Whether the bonuses were “huge” or not is a matter of opinion; the IG report said the average TSA bonus was $16,477, compared to an average bonus of  $12,444 for all federal agencies the previous year. TSA also paid bonuses to 76 percent of eligible executives, when the federal government as a whole paid bonuses to 49 percent of eligible executives.

But huge or not, Hutchinson wasn’t running TSA and wasn’t responsible for paying bonuses. He was at the time the under secretary for border transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. TSA was one of several agencies that reported through him to the department’s top two officials, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and Deputy Secretary Gordon England, according to the U.S. Government Manual’s organization chart.

Day-to-day operations of TSA were the responsibility of its administrator. Hutchinson’s position put him at the head of the “Border and Transportation Security Directorate,” which the government manual said was responsible for “securing our Nation’s borders and transportation systems” and “enforcing the Nation’s immigration laws.”  But responsibility for internal DHS matters including “budget, appropriations, expenditure of funds, accounting and finance” and “human resources and personnel” fell under the DHS under secretary for management, not Hutchinson.

$461,000 ‘Birthday Party’

The ad’s narrator goes on to say, “[N]o political appointee should ever allow half a million in tax dollars to be spent just to throw a birthday party. Well, you guessed it. Asa did that, too.”

But no, Asa didn’t do that either.

The “birthday party” in question wasn’t to celebrate Hutchinson’s birthday, an impression that would be easy to draw from the ad. And Hutchinson wasn’t in a position to “allow” that spending any more than the TSA bonus payments.

The event in question was TSA’s first annual “awards program,” held on Nov. 19, 2003 on the second anniversary of the signing of the legislation that created the agency. If it was a “‘birthday” celebration it was for TSA, not Hutchinson.

The IG said it cost approximately $461,745, counting everything including food and drink, lodging, transportation, and per diem allowances for award recipients and their guests, the services of a party planner, audio visual support, plaques and photographs of award recipients.

The IG report found the spending to be “excessive,” but it found no fault with Hutchinson, who isn’t even named in the report except as one of many homeland security officials on the distribution list to receive a copy. As we’ve already mentioned, Hutchinson wasn’t running TSA and had no responsibility for internal department matters such as budget or spending.

‘Tax Relief’

An on-screen graphic in the ad says Hutchinson “voted against tax relief for Arkansas families,” while the narrator says “No Washington politician should ever forget who they work for, but Asa Hutchinson did.”  But even this claim is a stretch.

The ad refers to a vote Hutchinson, then a member of the House of Representatives, cast on May 2, 2001 against a Democratic amendment that would have created a “refundable” tax credit for low- and middle-income workers to set aside funds for retirement.

There’s no question that this proposal would have benefited families that currently have too little income to benefit from tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts. But it’s a stretch to call the proposal “tax relief.” The principal beneficiaries of “refundable” credits are those who don’t benefit from the plain old tax deductions allowed for contributions to IRAs because they make so little that they pay little or no federal income taxes in the first place. Critics referred to it at the time as a new “entitlement program” that would have cost a good deal of money.

Republican Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, the sponsor of the bill to which the amendment was offered, said during debate (page H1814) that the amendment would nearly double the cost, from $52 billion over 10 years to $97 billion. The amendment was defeated on an almost pure party-line vote of 207 to 223, with only Democrats voting in favor and all 219 Republicans voting against.

The Hutchinson campaign has called the DGA ad “false and misleading,” but so far has not rolled out its own TV ad in rebuttal. Will Hutchinson again resort to exaggerated claims like those we criticized last month? We certainly hope Asa sticks to the facts.

— Brooks Jackson

Update, June 18: Shortly after we posted this story the DGA’s Deputy Communications Director Sabrina Singh messaged us to complain, and to point out that the biography that appears on the website of Hutchinson’s law firm states that he was “responsible” for employees at TSA and other agencies under his jurisdiction — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. We are happy to note this. However, it does not change the fact that Hutchinson was not the person in day-to-day control of any of those agencies. And, in our judgment, it doesn’t come close to constituting evidence that he had any personal hand in approving the bonus payments or the party spending cited in the DGA ad.