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Winston Bryant turns tough.

Winston Bryant Turns Tough

Attorney General Winston Bryant could have played the part of Clark Kent - glasses, mild-mannered demeanor, conservative attire, an admitted workaholic.

The image was perfect for a low-profile lieutenant governor.

But sometime around the middle of January, Bryant must have slipped into a telephone booth.

Out has stepped Arkansas' new attorney general - an outspoken, lawsuit-slapping, media darling.

Rarely does a day go by that Winston Bryant is not in the news, be it from a news conference he has called, a television camera he has stepped in front of or a lawsuit he has filed.

Bryant estimates his office has filed more lawsuits already than the attorney general's office had in the previous 10 years.

Some say his actions are long overdue, that Bryant is fast becoming this state's best attorney general and the people's best friend.

"I think he has done a terrific job," says Ron Fields of Fort Smith, who briefly served as attorney general between the fallen Steve Clark and Bryant. "He has revitalized the office."

But others say Bryant panders to the press, taking popular stands in high-profile cases to position himself for a 1994 gubernatorial run.

Asa Hutchinson, Bryant's Republican opponent last fall, has said Bryant is using the office to bolster his political fortunes. Attorney Thomas Mars of Springdale, who represents Arkansas Western Gas Co. in a lawsuit against the attorney general, says Bryant is simply trying to "build his reputation" as a consumer advocate by filing so many suits.

Chris Barneycastle, executive vice president of the Arkansas Forestry Association, says Bryant's intervention in a much-publicized lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, over clear-cutting in the Ouachita National Forest, "was a political move."

The criticisms roll off Bryant's slight shoulders.

"If you do your job, you're going to be filing lawsuits," Bryant says. "The reaction I've had has been positive. Of course, some of the people sued and some of the interest groups involved are not happy.

"But I think the general public has appreciated what we have done."

What Bryant has done is shock political observers.

Playing The Green Card

He is active on environmental issues, including a lawsuit against the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology.

He has been vocal in his opposition of telemarketing scams while championing consumer rights. His office has filed more than a dozen consumer protection suits.

He has thrown away state credit cards and turned down public relations funds to avoid any appearance of impropriety, upsetting some of the state's other constitutional officers in the process.

"I hope the public perceives that the attorney general is trying to be the people's lawyer," says Royce Griffin, deputy attorney general with the consumer protection division. "He's filing lawsuits that benefit the people."

A case in point, says state Sen. Mike Ross of Prescott, is the suit Bryant filed against PC&E on Aug. 9, a lawsuit that "perplexed" Gov. Bill Clinton but brought Bryant slaps on the back from environmentalists.

"A lot of attorney generals have looked at their role as a lawyer only for state agencies," says Ross, who was an aide to Bryant when Bryant was lieutenant governor. "By taking PC&E to court, he has not lost sight of the fact that he represents the people."

Bryant also played the "green card" when his office became involved in a suit filed by the Sierra Club and the Defenders of the Ouachita National Forest against the Forest Service.

Bryant filed a motion to intervene April 30 in an effort to stop clear-cutting, vowing, "This is the Natural State. I plan to do all I can to keep it that way."

When a federal judge barred Bryant from intervening, the attorney general appealed.

He says he's not through yet.

"He's supposed to be representing all of Arkansas, but we think he represents a small minority with his position," says Barneycastle.

Barneycastle and members of his staff had a heated exchange with Bryant and the attorney general's staff shortly after Bryant announced his decision to intervene on behalf of the Sierra Club.

"I found him to be close minded," Barneycastle says. "The bottom line is that it's a political move.

"It seems he doesn't want to be confused by the facts."

Timber Industry Nightmare

Barneycastle says Bryant's environmental stance is "a popular political bandwagon he decided to jump on."

Of course, employees and members of the Sierra Club view Bryant as a hero.

Beth Johnson of Dallas, the Sierra Club's regional representative, says Bryant's recent action to block a timber sale in the Ouachita National Forest is evidence that he is not backing off.

A hearing is set for Sept. 18-19 at Fort Smith.

Johnson believes the issue will be resolved within six months with Bryant assistance.

She calls the attorney general's action "an extremely significant step in term of hitting the agency between the eye with a two-by-four. I think he will fight the thing timber sale by timber sale."

Barneycastle says that could be dead for the state's timber industry.

Barneycastle has invited Bryant in writing to tour a forest area.

"He has not taken us up on that year and I don't expect him to," Barneycastle says.

Bryant has, however, accepted a similar invitation from the Sierra Club.

"I've met a lot of politicians, and I'm generally skeptical of them," Johnson says. "But I think he's genuine.

"He wants to, pardon my French, kick some butt."

Take the bull by the horns.

And shoot from the hip.

But is Bryant sometimes shooting an unloaded gun?

In one instance, Mars thinks so.

Mars' client, Fayetteville-based Arkansas Western Gas, and Bryant's office are entangled in a case pending before the state Public Service Commission.

The attorney general's office filed a petition requesting an order from the PSC requiring Arkansas Western and one of its affiliates, SEECO Inc., to reduce the cost of gas.

Mars wanted to see the working papers belonging to Bryant, his staff attorneys and Tom Mitchell, a consultant from Dallas.

Bryant refused, citing a "working papers exemption" for the attorney general's office under the state Freedom of Information Act.

Mars says the exemption applies only to Bryant, not his staff.

"What the utility is claiming is that it is entitled to the work product of our attorneys and staff personnel in preparing for the lawsuit," Bryant says. "That's ridiculous."

A Smoking Gun

"This is the first time we're aware of that an attorney general has taken this position," says Mars, noting that Bryant has presented himself as a friend of the FOI Act.

A hearing was to be held on the matter last Friday.

Meanwhile, Mars claims documents he received from the PSC under the FOI may have uncovered a "smoking gun."

In a memo dated April 11, 1986, Butch Sullins, then a PSC staff member, wrote to Robert Johnston, then PSC chairman.

Sullins said a certain pricing statute did not apply to the Arkansas Western-SEECO contract because the "gas is not considered to be a co-owned production."

"Bryant said [the statute] prohibits AWG from buying gas from SEECO at a contract price," Mars says.

The memo appears to nullify that.

If Bryant and his staff saw the memo, "they would drop their teeth," Mars says.

"He wants to portray himself as this consumer advocate, to use this case to build his reputation as an attorney general who will protect the rights of consumers," Mars says.

Bryant does not argue with that.

"The lawsuit we filed against Ron Cool and Callan Publishing brought out the fact that telemarketers generally rake in 80 percent of solicitations," Bryant says. "I don't think most people realized that."

Bryant filed suit against Cool, who solicited funds for gift boxes for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. He contended Cool then spent the money on himself.

Bryant also filed suit against Callan Publishing Co. of Minneapolis for collecting money in the name of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police for their "Drug Watch" television program.

Bryant claims to have "shut down" Cool.

The Callan Publishing case will go to trial in January.

Cracking Down On Cons

"Instead of slapping con artists and confidence men on the wrists, we file suits to put them out of business," Bryant says.

Although accused of grandstanding, Bryant says he has simply cracked down on cons by beefing up the consumer protection division. He claims the division was neglected for years.

Bryant has added almost a dozen attorneys to the office since taking over, giving him more than 50 lawyers.

It's quite a change from his days as lieutenant governor. Bryant had just one secretary for eight of his 10 years on the job, a skeleton crew and a no reputation.

What's next?

Most assume Bryant will run for governor.

Past holders of the attorney general's office - Clark, Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker to name three - tried with mixed results to use it as a springboard.

"I'm sure some people might look at it that way," Bryant says. "But that is not the case. Basically, I do my job the best I can and let the political chips fall where they may.

"I don't have any political plans in mind."

Already, Bryant says he has accomplished one of his main goals, coming in as he did soon after Clark's resignation.

"I think we've been successful in restoring integrity to the office, which is what I promised when I ran," Bryant says.

He cites three things he did:

* He threw away the state credit cards that contributed to Clark's downfall.

* He declined money from a public relations fund for constitutional officers.

* He hired more attorneys.

"He's been good for the image of the office," says Fields, a prosecuting attorney at Fort Smith. "He projects a stable, competent image. I really think he has turned it around."

But is Bryant too concerned with his public image?

When Bryant filed suit against a North Little Rock man accused of selling salvaged cars without telling the purchasers they were salvaged, television cameras filmed the attorney general in action at the court clerk's office.

Often, he calls news conferences.

Just Doing His Job

Bryant says, "I still try to focus on the job. The press and whatever else is beside the point. I think you can get lost in the press aspect of the job.

"I've had my share of criticisms, so it's good to have glowing press reports lately. As lieutenant governor and secretary of state, I was constantly bashed. I've seen the other side of the coin."

Again, Bryant points out that lawsuits are part of his job.

But is this plethora of costly lawsuits - at least 17 and counting - necessary?

"Most of the suits he has filed have merit," Fields says. "They are not publicity stunts."

Besides, Bryant proponents say, even if some occasionally come off as dog-and-pony shows, he is doing what he was elected to do.

"Having worked closely with him, I know he was perceived as being rather quiet and not aggressive," Ross says. "But as lieutenant governor, he could not be aggressive. There is virtually no power associated with that office. He has the power to do things now."

No longer is Winston Bryant playing the role of Clark Kent.

PHOTO : NEW BLOOD: Attorney General Winston Bryant (center), chief of staff Lawrence Graves (left) and public information officer Perrin Jones have been aggressive since Bryant took office in January. The attorney general's office has filed lawsuits against businesses and even state agencies.

PHOTO : MEET THE PRESS: Since becoming attorney general, Winston Bryant has been in the news on a regular basis. Some say he's grandstanding. Supporters say he's trying to be the people's lawyer.

PHOTO : TALKING IT OVER: Lawrence Graves (left), chief of staff for the attorney general's office, and Perrin Jones, public information officer, are part of a staff that is concentrating on environmental and consumer protection issues, much to the chagrin of some businesses.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Arkansas' new attorney general; includes related articles
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 26, 1991
Previous Article:High noon in west Little Rock.
Next Article:What's up with Hunt?

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