STEVE FARIS: He's Arkansas's Zelig, a face that turns up in multiple settings.

The legislature’s joint retirement committee will get a report Tuesday on the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System’s involvement as plaintiff in about a dozen class-action lawsuits. It is a topic of interest since a court in Massachusetts noted possible political connections in payment of a $4 million finder’s fee out of $75 million in attorney fees awarded in a $300 million judgment against State Street Corp., an investment firm. That settlement is worth about $40 million to the Arkansas retirement system, compensation for a swindle in foreign exchange trading.

Did somebody say politics, Arkansas style? See what you think.


Here’s what we know, from a report to the court in Massachusetts and reporting by Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and here at the Arkansas Blog.

ATRS’ involvement dates back to at least 2008, when George Hopkins, a former state senator from Malvern, became director. He’s told the Massachusetts court he wants the system to remain lead plaintiff – and thus eligible for enhanced recovery – despite a vote of the ATRS Board that he drop that role. Questions on that are expected Tuesday. In preparation, ATRS has filed papers on all the cases in which it is involved, reimbursements from law firms so far, and the recently unsealed Massachusetts court report reviewing attorney fees in the case.


A judge has said the Labaton, Sucharow law firm did a good job and won a good settlement. But questions were nonetheless raised about a $4.1 million finder’s fee paid by Labaton to a Texas attorney, Damon Chargois, who introduced Labaton Sucharow, the lead law firm, to the ATRS.

Labaton says finders’ fees are legal and didn’t come out of the settlement and it disputes ethical concerns raised by a special master. The presiding judge nonetheless suggested questions linger about whether payments stopped at Chargois.


Who is Chargois and how did he come to be an intermediary between Arkansas and Labaton?

Hopkins has testified that Steve Faris, who succeeded Hopkins as a senator from Malvern, had introduced Labaton to Paul Doane, then-director of ATRS in 2007. It was selected as a securities monitoring firm in 2008, before Hopkins became director.

Faris, a one-time Democrat recently put on the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System Board by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, told the Democrat-Gazette that he called Doane at the request of a friend, Tim Herron, who is associated with the Chargois’ law firm. He said he made many calls on behalf of many people as a legislators.

Herron’s uncle is Gordon Powell, who once worked for the House of Representatives during sessions. He was also board president for Central Arkansas Telephone Cooperative, where Faris once was employed as a manager. Hopkins once did legal work for the company.


All insist nobody in Arkansas got money from money paid to Chargois. The Labaton firm bristled at suggestions by a special master of potential political influence peddling, disputing even a hint of kickbacks or payoffs.

Still, Hopkins himself had told the judge in the case that he’d gotten encouragement from “political leaders” to get involved in class action cases, something he previously hadn’t considered.

Though not listed as attorney in the case, Chargois got a percentage of the Labaton award in the State Street case, as it has on at least nine more cases.

The special master in the case has faulted Hopkins for the plaintiffs’ lack of knowledge of the side payment to Chargois. But Hopkins said that wasn’t his responsibility. Still, the presiding judge had concerns. As I wrote last week:

Among other materials Labaton later turned over was a 2014 e-mail in which Chargois complained about being undercompensated in some of the other cases where Labaton represented ATRS.

“We got you ATRS as a client after considerable favors, money spent and time dedicated in Arkansas,” Chargois said in that e-mail.

Faris is a Zelig figure in Arkansas politics. He first rose to my attention as gatekeeper for Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who died in prison after conviction of public corruption. He went on to the Senate and, then, despite being a Democrat, got brought on after he left office as right-hand man to Republican Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux. Lamoureux’s career was marked by the disclosure that he wsas paid while a legislature by special interest groups. He left abruptly as Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff after a short tenure to become a lobbyist. He has since has been identified among the legislators who shipped state surplus money to the scandal-enmeshed Preferred Family Healthcare and affiliates, now suspended from $43 million in state contracts because of multiple fraud charges and convictions (unrelated to Lamoureux). While working for the Senate, Faris managed to obtain Little Rock living quarters in a pied a terre created out of a former state utility facility on Capitol grounds during McCuen’s time in office.

Faris also once hooked up State Treasurer Martha Shoffner with a free apartment in Little Rock. Owner: Tim Herron. Chad Day reported extensively on this deal in 2013 for the Democrat-Gazette after Shoffner’s arrest for taking kickbacks on state bond business. (By the time of that article, Faris was a member of the state Lottery Commission.) By that account, Shoffner lived in the house at 2nd and Ringo for about four years, paying only utilities. She then moved to another Herron apartment but had to pay $800 a month rent. That obligation, according to the FBI, led to her need to get cash payments from a bond salesman to pay the rent.

The National Review, in reporting on the finder’s fee question in the State Street case, said Labaton’s contributions to political candidates were minimal. In Arkansas, however, a little goes a long way.

During Shoffner’s runs for treasurer she netted more than $30,000 in contributions from Herron and his wife, Hopkins and his wife, Chargois and various members of the Labaton firm. She also came under fire during her service for taking a $10,000 check from a different New York law firm, rather than checks written for the maximum $2,000 from individual members. She said it was a clerical error. She was a member of the Teacher Retirement System Board at the time and voted on the firms hired for security monitoring work.

Oh, and speaking of that Hot Spring County connection between Arkansas and a New York law firm: Eight members of the New York law firm gave $500 contributions in 2012 to a successful Democratic legislative candidate. David Kizzia. Of Malvern.


It is shocking someone would speculate pay-to-play happens in Arkansas.