Columns » Max Brantley

The crash of Martha Shoffner

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My overriding emotion about the fate of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner is sadness.

Is this because of embarrassment? I once endorsed her over an able candidate.

Is it partisanship? Inevitably her implosion accrues to the benefit of a continuing takeover of state government by Republican zealotry. (Unless, that is, the squeaky clean Republican Duncan Baird happens to be the next elected treasurer.)

Is it just the human tragedy? Shoffner has made a mess of her 68-year-old life and the lives of many others. She's also delivered another blow to trust in public servants.

Maybe it's all of that.

If you don't know by now, Shoffner, a former state legislator and second-term treasurer, was arrested at her home in Newport Saturday by FBI agents after a confidential informant had recorded her taking a $6,000 kickback for guiding lucrative state investment business to the informant, a securities salesman who commanded about a third of the state's billion-dollar bond business thanks to his payments to Shoffner. It was continuation of a string of payments to cover rent on Shoffner's Little Rock apartment and followed other alleged smaller gratuities, plus a $4,700 cash contribution to a campaign fund-raising event that the FBI thinks Shoffner pocketed.

In the end, Republican complaints about Shoffner's investment decisions came to nothing. The famous Legislative Audit Committee hearing that Shoffner tried to avoid was nothing but a Republican show trial — and an uninformed one at that. Auditors misled the public about some fundamental investment truths, one being that nobody can predict future interest rates with reliable certainty. It was never about the trades. It was about the kickbacks.

But with the hot light on Shoffner (FBI agents attended the audit committee meetings because of a months-old tip about Shoffner) what did she do? According to the criminal charge, she continued to stick her hand out. Last week, she solicited help from the broker to buy property in Newport. Buttressed by the tape of that call, FBI agents were lying in wait when he went to her home days later bearing his customary boxed pie, with a roll of 60 $100s hidden inside. The jig was up.

Shoffner's arrest Saturday opened a floodgate of stories from current and former employees about their old boss, people who felt they had nowhere to turn previously. One said Shoffner hurled a phone at her. Another said Shoffner called her derogatory names when she sent her every morning to fetch bacon biscuits for Shoffner and her dog Fred (extra crispy bacon; if not it was sent back to the Capitol cafeteria).

At a minimum, Shoffner was unqualified to handle billions in state investments, even in the relatively limited range in which state demand deposits must be kept. It's one of several state offices that shouldn't be popularly elected, but be solely an administrative function. It's always been corrupting to have the state treasurer elected on campaign money supplied by banks and investment houses. Such legal influence peddling is only marginally more acceptable than illegal kickbacks.

But this situation can be changed only by constitutional amendement.

Sad. Sad to see public trust abused. Sad to hear the fear and abuse reported by people who worked for a state elected official. Sad to see a 68-year-old woman — clueless, broke and grasping in a $53,000-a-year job with billion-dollar responsibilities — in a jail mug shot for a pie delivery straight out of "Shawshank Redemption."

Saddest of all is the admission by federal prosecutors that they essentially had no provable case until Shoffner, with full knowledge that feds were after her, called for the pieman one more time.

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