Monday, May 20, 2013

Martha Shoffner's day in court

Posted By on Mon, May 20, 2013 at 6:12 AM

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Treasurer Martha Shoffner
  • Brian Chilson/file photo
  • IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Treasurer Martha Shoffner
State Treasurer Martha Shoffner will lead the news today, though Sunday provided few new details about the FBI's somewhat unusual arrest of her Saturday afternoon for a weekend in the Pulaski County jail.

When last I spoke with the office of the U.S. attorney, neither a court appearance nor official news conference had been scheduled today on Shoffner's arrest on a charge related to receiving financial benefits for her public service. Nor had I had been able to get a response to the question of why the Saturday arrest. She wouldn't appear to be a flight risk. Surprise arrests are sometimes undertaken to preserve evidence. Two days in the slammer might make a 68-year-old woman prone to deal.

I wrote former U.S. attorney Chuck Banks, now one of the city's most successful criminal defense lawyers, to see if he was representing Shoffner. He didn't respond. But the Democrat-Gazette reports this morning that his name turned up on the county jail visitor log on Sunday. Banks, you might recall, defended Lu Hardin in his federal prosecution. It ended in a plea deal, but no jail time for the former UCA president, a former legislator in a position of public trust convicted of fraud and money laundering.

Employees of Shoffner are whispering that, despite the fact she's been under scrutiny for months, that they didn't believe she'd hired a lawyer until very recently, perhaps this weekend. If so, it was a decision about as wise as her decision not to appear to answer a legislative subpoena over her audit. She's short of financial resources, employees say, but legal representation is something you can't afford to skimp on.

A personal assistant to Shoffner told me the office would be open for business as usual Monday. We still don't know whether the charge will be linked to her investment decisions, or her messy campaign finances or both. Her ability to conduct business without ill appearance will necessarily be damaged by being under federal charge. Pressure on her to resign will be enormous, however firm and perhaps even credible her protests of innocence might be. The difference here, as compared with say the prosecution of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, was that the case against him was wholly unrelated to his public office.

Employees that I've reached or been quoted by others, to a person, were caught unawares by Saturday's arrest. It occurs to me that the drama might encourage others to be cooperative, if others are in a position to do so.

I thought this was interesting — a Facebook post by former Republican Rep. Ed Garner making the unexceptional but worthy point that innocence attaches to all until proof of guilt and, moreover, that state investments for which Shoffner have been criticized aren't necessarily so readily judged. It is not a crime to sell a bond before maturity, for example. Also, there've been some gross misrepresentations already in this case by people nominally thought to be nonpartisan evaluators. I explored that at some length here when the increasingly political legislative audit division publicized faulty comparisons between treasury and retirement system investments to help Republican legislators build a case against Shoffner.

I'd add that it is not a crime to do business with friends or for a state official's office to do business with a campaign contributor (statutory law and sleaze being two different things). We'd be a nation of political felons if that were so. It's the direct quid pro quo that's the problem. Sometimes hard to prove; sometimes not. Soon we'll have more details to judge. IF the case involves benefits from people with whom Shoffner did state business, it's worth noting that no relevant names have turned up on jail dockets just yet.

UPDATE: Just heard a withering allegation from a former Shoffner employee about her relationship with certain people who did business with the office. If provable ... curtains. Her management of office staff is going to be an ugly tale, too.

Other items this Monday morning:

* GUN HAPPY: NRA blog reports news that Remington Arms is expanding its ammunition plant in Lonoke. It's a $32 million project.

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