by Max Brantley
I hinted earlier that evidence was mounting that the securities salesman who provided confidential information to the FBI was Steele Stephens, the broker who began enjoying a huge share of Treasurer Martha Shoffner's bond business in 2010.
Two highly placed sources have told me that they were certain Stephens was the wired informant who delivered cash to Shoffner in a pie at her Newport home Saturday.
Yesterday, he didn't take calls. But his boss at St. Bernard Financial Services in Russellville, Robert Keenan, had told me he'd talked to Stephens, who assured him he was not involved.
After hearing from my two sources, I was heading to work with plans to call Keenan back. I was greeted at my desk by this phone message from Keenan: "I think my rep's been lying to me."
I called Keenan, who gave the following account:
Keenan first looked again at the criminal charge and decided that the time line of Stephens' involvement with Shoffner dealing could fit Stephens after all, if you counted his time with both St. Bernard and an earlier employer.
"I asked him, 'Are you involved?'"
Stephens reportedly responded, "The FBI told me I can't say anything."
Keenan said he then asked when that counsel from the FBI occurred. In January 2012, Stephens reportedly responded. That's when the confidential source began talking with the FBI in the Shoffner case.
"So I said, OK, it's him" Keenan told me.
Stephens never officially confirmed that. But Keenan said "there are so many dots." He said Stephens continues to work at the firm today (he didn't respond to my request for a call), because he didn't want to move rashly. But he said he'd begun notifying all relevant regulatory authorities to "see what they say."
Keenan reiterated that anything Stephens had done was without his knowledge. "I'm crushed. He's a great guy."
He said Stephens is required to sign a lengthy questionaire every year about his business. Among them is whether he'd made any contributions to anyone without the firm's permission. He said he had not. "Obviously that's not true," Keenan said.
"It's like family when you're in a little firm. You believe in your people. It's like if somebody told you your son's got a drug problem. Your first reaction would be to say, 'No, I don't think so.'"
Keenan said, "It's a PR nightmare. We haven't done anything wrong as a firm. My dad taught me you can't do crap like this because it eventually comes out."
Steele Stephens' father, Steve Stephens of Little Rock, also has been employed as a registered securities rep at the firm, but retired this year on his 83rd birthday, Keenan said. (I had Keenan's name at the beginning of the sentence incorrectly in the original post.)
When I went back to Heath Abshure, the state securities commissioner, with my information that Stephens figured in the probe, he responded:
We are working on it. Although the Department’s enforcement actions are civil, the effect on a respondent’s reputation mirrors that of a criminal case. As soon as the Department files its complaint, the damage is done. Therefore, I tell my examiners and attorneys that they are not to file an action until they are absolutely sure they can prove each allegation in the complaint.
With regard to the identity of the confidential source, the Department is reaching out to the likely suspects in an effort to get them to talk to us. Cooperation is something the Department considers in its enforcement matters. Obviously, lack of cooperation is also considered.