Watchdog: Follow the Money

Former Arkansas treasurer Martha Shoffner to start trial on 14 corruption counts

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Associated Press,Watchdog,Arkansas,Corruption,Follow the Money,State Courts

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Former Arkansas treasurer Martha Shoffner heads to federal court this week on charges she took $36,000 from a bond broker who did business with the state.

Shoffner, 69, tried to enter a plea agreement last May, but told a federal judge she didn't believe any payments affected decisions she made as a state constitutional officer. The judge refused to accept the proposed deal and set the case for trial, which is set to begin Monday with jury selection.

The former treasurer quit her post last May, after she was named in a 14-count indictment alleging extortion and bribery. A subsequent indictment added 10 mail fraud counts that will be considered in a separate case March 31.

In the trial beginning Monday, prosecutors allege Shoffner accepted a series of $6,000 payments from an unnamed bond broker who would drop off the money at Shoffner's office every six months. At least twice, the broker concealed the cash in pie boxes. An FBI affidavit says Shoffner steered state bond business to the broker in exchange for the money.

The government granted the broker immunity. The affidavit says the payments began when Shoffner asked the broker for $1,000 so she could pay the rent on her Little Rock home.

At the plea hearing that didn't work out, Shoffner told the judge she didn't believe the payments affected her decisions and she denied steering bond business to the broker.

After that hearing, U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer said he was disappointed the plea agreement collapsed but said he was comfortable going to trial.

"If that's what this case calls for, that's what we intend to do and that's have a trial," Thyer said at the time.

Shoffner's arrest at her Newport home came after the broker wore a listening device and brought a payment in a pie box. FBI agents found the money in a package of cigarettes in her kitchen.

Shoffner's attorney, Chuck Banks of Little Rock, said after the May hearing that his client took him by surprise when she wouldn't admit to elements of the allegations. U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes said he couldn't accept her plea.

On Thursday, Holmes denied a motion by Banks in which he asked the judge to throw out the charges. Banks argued that the government failed to state an offense and didn't show evidence of a crime.

"The court will rule on Shoffner's arguments regarding the sufficiency of the evidence at the proper time, but that time has not yet come," Holmes wrote. "The indictment fairly informs Shoffner of the charges against which she must defend."

Shoffner faces six counts of extortion under color of official right and one attempted extortion charge for each of the payments the FBI says Shoffner accepted. Those charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. The seven bribery charges cover all of the payments Shoffner received, plus the $6,000 payment the FBI said she accepted on tape in May. The bribery charges carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

A Democrat, Shoffner was a state representative from 1996-2002. She was elected treasurer in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.

She resigned after Gov. Mike Beebe, a fellow Democrat, called for her to leave office and legislators threatened to impeach her. She apologized to the people of Arkansas. Beebe appointed former Legislative Auditor Charles Robinson to serve the remainder of Shoffner's term, which concludes in January.

In 2012, Shoffner drew scrutiny from legislators over premature sales of bonds, which auditors said caused the state to miss out on $434,000 in earnings the bonds would have generated at maturity.

The mail fraud charges allege Shoffner misused $9,800 from a campaign account.