Thursday, June 8, 2006

Carnahan pleads

Posted By on Thu, Jun 8, 2006 at 11:50 AM

Former Federal Marshal Ray Carnahan entered a guilty plea today in federal court in Fort Smith to obstructing governmental operations, a misdemeanor. He'll be sentenced in four to six weeks. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 days and a $5,000 fine.

The prosecution likely will make a recommendation of a light sentence in return for the plea has recommended a $500 fine for the plea, though the judge is not required to follow that recommendation . Sources tell us the plea came after an agreement by the government to drop a felony charge of obstruction of justice.

The plea was given reluctantly today, our witness tells us. Carnahan initially wouldn't simply state that he was guilty of the charge. He wanted to preface it by saying "on advice of counsel." Magistrate Beverly Jones was having none of it. She insisted on a straight up admission of guilt. He finally gave it.

Our observer said the court session was tense. Carnahan and family members were visibily angry and son Chris Carnahan, a lawyer and former director of the state Republican Party, reportedly intervened brusquely to prevent a Democrat-Gazette reporter from interviewing his father.

There was only a brief recitation of facts. But the case is as we told you earlier. Carnahan was on a drive on a road through a National Forest last October when stopped by wildlife officer Michael Gray, who had been searching for bear poachers. Carnahan drove away after an initial stop and then got angry when Gray pursued him and brought him to a stop again. Gray said Carnhan threw him up against Carnahan's SUV at one point and refused his order to stop when Carnahan went to the back of his car to remove something from a bag. Gray's agitated commands for Carnahan to stop and his question of whether Carnahan had a weapon were overheard by other wildlife officers because Gray had keyed his radio microphone. Heated words were exchanged. At one point during the episode, another wildlife officer said, Chris Carnahan claimed to be a prosecutor (he was then a law student and intern for Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley) and also threatened to call Sheffield Nelson, a Game and Fish Commission member and prominent Republican.

Ultimately, after the second officer arrived, the Carnahan family, including his wife, a grandchild and mother-in-law on a nursing home outing, were sent on their way. But problems developed because Carnahan made good on a threat during the stop of trying to get Gray's job. Pressure was applied on Game and Fish and elsewhere by the Carnahans. Game and Fish, to its credit, treated the complaint straight up and launched an internal investigation of its officers' conduct. Because of Carnhan's changing stories and the severity of his actions, as relayed by the officer and corroborated by others, the matter was referred to the federal prosecutor in Fort Smith, which has jursidiction over national forests. A Justice Department Office of Inspector General review also was begun because of Carnahan's job. It was during this process that Carnahan made statements that resulted in a felony charge.

When Justice Department learned that Carnahan, at a minimum, would be charged with a misdemeanor, the White House demanded his resignation, which came at the end of April.

So there it is. Ego, temper and a political power play turned a routine traffic stop into an unhappy scene in a Fort Smith courtroom that ended a long and previously unblemished law enforcement careeer.

As events were relayed to us, Carnahan is  lucky he wasn't shot when he disregarded the law officer's order to stand still and reached into a bag in the back of his SUV. He had reportedly told Gray shortly before, when he asked if he had weapon, "You damn right I do."

Carnahan's alibi was that the officer's identity wasn't clear (though he was wearing a uniform, with several identifying labels) and that his behavior was erratic. Testimony about radio communications and his behavior when the other officer arrived -- as well as other information gathered in the investigation -- persuaded prosecutors.

Game and Fish has now ended its fiction that it had an investigation underway and cannot release its files on this case. The investigation was, we've confirmed with Prosecutor Bob Balfe, done entirely by federal officials, not jointly with Game and Fish, despite contrary representations by Game and Fish. Game and Fish simply refused to release information we requested under the FOI because they'd been requested to do so by federal officials. There is no provision in the law allowing the state agency to ignore a state law in such a circumstance, whatever professional courtesy might seem to dictate.

Law officer incident reports are public record in Arkansas. Game and Fish tarnished otherwise praiseworthy action in this politically charged case by keeping it secret.

UPDATE: We have the GFC reports in hand, a couple of narrative from wildlife officers. Nothing much to change in our previous accounts, though the details are richer. We're trying to figure out a way to post some copies. The officers' accounts are there as we've reported them, including Chris Carnahan's claim to be a prosecuting attorney and his threat to call Sheffield Nelson. Also Ray Carnhan's threatening job reprisal against Gray. Your turn, Keith.

PS -- Carnahan was marshal for the Eastern District of Arkansas, based in Little Rock. Though he had a long career with the State Police, the marshal's job is a political patronage appointment. The job is being filled on an interim base by a member of the career marshals service while the White House considers a new appointment. State Crime Lab Director J.R. Howard is among those being mentioned for the appointment. He reportedly has support of Gov. Huckabee for the appointment.

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