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Eight years ago, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission imposed the judicial “death penalty” on Little Rock Municipal Judge Bill Watt, ruling that he could never again be a judge in Arkansas. This month, the commission reconsidered and effectively reversed its earlier ruling, the first time it has ever done so.
Watt told the Arkansas Times he would not seek another judgeship. He asked for reconsideration, he said, because “I wanted closure. If I got a call to sit as a special judge, I wanted to be able to do it. I wanted to be back where I was before Whitewater.”
Watt was a key witness and named by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Whitewater investigation. The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission took action against him in 1996, partly because of testimony he gave at the trial of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Jim McDougal and Susan McDougal, accused of defrauding the government. Watt resigned from the bench voluntarily, five months before his term would have ended.
Watt said Monday that since 1996, documents and witnesses in the Whitewater affair had become available to show that the “death penalty” wasn’t justified in his case. “I was prepared to retry Whitewater,” he said. The Whitewater testimony wasn’t the only factor in the 1996 decision, however.
James Badami, director of the Discipline and Disability Commission, said that Watt first asked for reconsideration in 2001. The Commission’s order this month came after many hearings and much correspondence, he said. The order changed the sanction against Watt from the “death penalty” to a prohibition against serving as a judge from July 31, 1996, through June 30, 2004. From “forever” to “time served,” in other words. The order said that the new sanction was being imposed “In light of Judge Watt’s resignation from the bench for the benefit and integrity of the judicial system and to avoid relitigating ‘Whitewater’ … “
The new order contains a number of “stipulations” by Watt’s attorney Mark Hampton concerning the Commission’s new order. Among other things, Watt admitted to illegally funneling money to the political campaign of Frank White, a Republican former governor who was seeking to regain the office; to forging the signature of David Hale, a sometime business associate who was convicted in the Whitewater case, and to being “less than forthcoming” with the FBI and the Office of Independent Counsel (Starr) in the early stages of the investigation. (The Commission’s first order said that he had “lied.”) Watt said that after he obtained counsel and was ordered by the court to testify, he was “completely truthful and fully cooperative … “
Watt, however, did not admit earlier Commission findings that he had pushed an appraiser to inflate an appraisal for a loan from Jim McDougal’s Madison Guaranty, that he had tried to give a state legislator $1,500 for handling municipal judge salary legislation, and that his staff had acted as investigator in truancy cases he’d heard from the Little Rock School District (the last complaint was filed by the Arkansas Times). He offered a variety of explanations for these. For example, his contact with the appraiser was before his time as judge; there was nothing improper about the payment to the legislator, and he claimed he’d had no ex parte communications on truancy cases before he decided them.
The Commission’s order (not publicized by a news release as is usually the case) held specifically that Watt had made an illegal contribution to Frank White. But it merged all the other complaints. The order said that, as to those, Watt admitted that he had violated Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. It says a judge “shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.”
Watt said he’s entitled to a pension at 65 for his 10 years’ service as municipal judge. The pension is not affected by the Discipline Commission’s actions, he said.
The members of the Commission are Judge William Storey of Fayetteville, Judge Leon Jamison of Pine Bluff, Judge Chris Williams of Malvern, John Everett of Fayetteville, Laurie Bridewell of Lake Village, Michael R. Gott of Jonesboro, Dr. Prince E. Claybrook of Hope, Arby Smith of Little Rock and Reg. D. Hamman of North Little Rock.