Arkansas Attorney General Challenges State Board of Corrections’ Outside Counsel in FOIA Case

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas – Attorney General Tim Griffin has taken legal action to remove the state Board of Corrections’ lawyer from a Freedom of Information Act case. Griffin argues that the board cannot hire an outside attorney under a specific state law because board members are not constitutional officers. The motion filed by Griffin asserts that “The Board and its members are created by statute, not the Constitution.” In response, the outside attorney, Abtin Mehdizadegan, claims that Griffin’s argument has already been rejected by another judge in a separate case involving the same parties.

The case centers on Arkansas Code Annotated § 25-16-711, which Mehdizadegan believes allows the board to hire outside counsel. Two lawsuits were filed last month, one by the board against Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and former Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri, and the other by Griffin against the board. The former claims that Sanders and Profiri were trying to undermine the board’s authority, while the latter alleges that the board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The dispute between the board, Sanders, and Profiri has been ongoing for some time. Sanders initially hired Profiri a year ago, but the board fired him recently after disagreements over expanding Arkansas prisons. However, Profiri was quickly rehired as a senior adviser in the governor’s office. This has caused a constitutional crisis within Arkansas’ prison system, as the implementation of Acts 185 and 659 in 2023 seemed to give Profiri more autonomy, contrary to the historical understanding that the secretary should answer to the board.

The board’s lawsuit aims to maintain its authority over the corrections secretary and the Department of Corrections’ directors. Judge Patricia James issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the enforcement of Act 185 and portions of Act 659, as the board argues that these acts infringe upon their powers defined in the Arkansas Constitution. Griffin intends to appeal this ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Griffin’s motion to disqualify Mehdizadegan argues that the board did not comply with the necessary requirements to hire outside counsel under Arkansas Code Annotated § 25-16-702. Mehdizadegan, on the other hand, maintains that the board’s actions were authorized by Judge James in a previous case.

To address the board’s lawsuit, Senior Assistant Attorney General Noah P. Watson has asked Judge James to reconsider the injunction. Watson contends that the board’s decision to fire Profiri removes the potential harm that could have justified the injunction. Mehdizadegan disagrees, claiming that the harm caused by Acts 185 and 659 still persists.

The conflict between the state Board of Corrections and Sanders’ administration continues to unfold. The cases filed by Griffin and the board shed light on the legal complexities surrounding the board’s authority and the actions of the corrections secretary. As the legal proceedings develop, the Arkansas Supreme Court will ultimately have to weigh in on this constitutional dispute.