Hudson Hallum appeared to have a bright future. A young, handsome man with a college degree, he established a successful ambulance business, was elected to the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce board and completed the Crittenden County Leadership Program.
He had a compelling story that fueled his career as an emergency medical technician and got him involved in the local Prom Promise program to combat teen drinking and distracted driving.
Then he tried his hand at politics.
He saw what seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start at the state level of government.
In January 2011 former Harlem Globetrotter Fred Smith resigned the District 54 seat in the state House of Representatives after being convicted of felony theft by receiving. A special election was called, and Hallum filed as a Democrat.
He did all the right things for a modern political candidate, establishing a website and Facebook page, opening a Twitter account, joining Linkedin and otherwise campaigning in the old-fashioned way — face to face. He formed a campaign team headed by his father, Kent Hallum.
In an April 2011 primary Hallum finished second among the four Democratic candidates, trailing the front-runner, Kim Felker, by 105 votes — enough to force a runoff. That’s apparently when Hallum took a wrong turn. According to an information later filed by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District Court of Arkansas, Hallum, his father and two others conspired to commit election fraud.
Their strategy worked — for a time. In the May 10 runoff Hallum defeated Felker narrowly, the difference being eight votes after a recount. Since Crittenden County usually votes Democratic, that left Hallum as the favorite in the special general election. And on July 11 he received 987 votes, more than the total for a Republican and an independent opponent.
Hudson Hallum, just short of his 27th birthday, was sworn in as a state legislator.
His tenure wouldn’t last long, though. Last week he resigned after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit election fraud. He faces a possible penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
In remarkably candid public statements Hallum confessed to his crime and expressed remorse.
“I didn’t initially really feel like what I was doing was wrong because I always heard that that’s what you do over here,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “As things started to progress, I started to realize that we were doing some things that were wrong, and I just got wrapped up in the middle of things, and I just turned away from it and allowed it to go on. That was wrong on my part.”
Indeed, it was. The crime seems even worse when you consider that he was aided and abetted by his father, as well as a West Memphis City Council member and a city police officer, all of whom pleaded guilty at the same time he did.
But that statement — “I always heard that that’s what you do over here” — is even more disturbing. Rumors of vote-buying in the Mississippi Delta are common— actually on both sides of the river. The region includes a large population of poor, uneducated people, and some are susceptible to corrupt politicians.
Whether election fraud is common in the Delta, I have no idea. Criminal cases like this one just haven’t happened.
If Hallum’s right, though, perhaps his conviction will serve notice that it can’t and won’t be tolerated any more.
What did he and the others do? The criminal information filed by U.S. Attorney Jane W. Duke makes it clear that this was no minor, unplanned conspiracy. The four conspirators brazenly and unlawfully manipulated absentee ballots that surely kept Felker from winning the runoff, from which she could have been elected state representative.
The Hallum campaign identified persons likely to vote by absentee ballot, then obtained applications for them and helped those citizens fill out their ballots. The conspirators collected the ballots and mailed them in, even though it’s against the law for a person to possess more than two absentee ballots. Before mailing them, though, they weeded out and destroyed the ballots cast for Felker.
With this manipulation Hallum received 890 votes, with 394 of them cast by absentee. Felker received 882 votes, with only 67 by absentee ballots.
How could anybody think that was OK?
After success in the primary runoff, the conspiracy continued. Of Hallum’s 1,009 votes in the general election, 384 came by absentee ballot, the information alleges.
That wasn’t all they did to elect Hallum. The U.S. attorney charged that Kent Hallum and Phillip Wayne Carter bought 100 half-pints of vodka and used them to convince voters that their candidate would make a fine state representative.
The information contains more shameful allegations — a chicken dinner bought to get multiple members of a household to vote, a directive from Hudson Hallum that $20 to $40 was too much to pay for one vote and “bait,” meaning cash used for inducements.
All this was done to get elected, and Hallum didn’t make a splash in his only legislative session. He didn’t even file a bill in last winter’s fiscal session.
In last week’s column about the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, a brain cramp caused me to misplace its site. It is located in Independence, Mo.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.