UPDATED THROUGHOUT: SEE JUMP FOR EXTENSIVE NEW DETAILS AND PDF DOCUMENTS FROM THE CASE FILE.
Alternate headline: DUMB AND DUMBER
Pulaski County School board member Tim Clark is trying to diminish his role in what a report by Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said was a scheme to discredit fellow board member Gwen Williams.
But the prosecutor's file contradicts Clark in a number of specific respects, including an account of Clark providing $2,500 to be used for expenses in the scheme. The file also provides many more details about the involvement of Michael Nellums, a principal at Mills High in the Pulaski school district and also a school board member in the neighboring Little Rock School District. Much of the evidence implicating Nellums came from a man who said he was a long-time friend.
Clark said in a prepared statement last night that he is innocent of all involvement and "will make every effort possible to clear my name." Clark insists he had no part in recruiting Ervin Bennett — the man seen in a video presenting an envelope to Williams as part of a mock bribery act — or asking him to contact Gwen Williams. Clark, Jegley said, worked in league with Nellums. Clark went on to say that while Bennett did call him on a number of occasions to ask for money, he never gave him any. (Clark never called authorities about the supposedly suspicious contact, either.)
"We believe individuals in Mr. Jegley's office offered Mr. Bennett immunity," Clark writes, "and it appears those people based their report entirely on this man's allegations."
Clark is right about one thing: Jegley's office did offer Bennett immunity in exchange for his statement. What Clark gets wrong, however, is his assertion that prosecutors didn't do additional homework. The investigative file at the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office — open now because the investigation has concluded — contains a trove of evidence that contradicts Clark's assertions.
Details from the investigation follow:
For example: Ervin Bennett's brother, Tracy Bunting, told investigators that he was instructed by Bennett to go to the Mapco store on JFK Boulevard in North Little Rock on Aug. 26 to deliver CDs — containing the audio and video footage of Williams taking an envelope containing a supposed bribe — to a man in a black Escalade named "Tim."
When he got there, Bunting told investigators, "Tim" took the CDs and gave him a Ritz cracker box containing $2,500 in cash. After taking out $100 for his time, Bunting later delivered the $2,400 to Michael Nellums. Bennett later told investigators that Nellums gave him $1,000 for his part in making the video and took the rest for expenses related to the scheme.
Tracy Bunting later identified the "Tim" he met at the Mapco as Tim Clark in a photograph lineup arranged by the Pulaski County sheriff's office. The sheriff's office also viewed store surveillance footage from the Mapco, which included what investigators call "clear face shots" of both Bunting and Clark entering the store at the time Bunting said the hand-off occurred. The video did not show contact between the two. Deputies also apparently obtained data from the OnStar system in Clark's car that shows him arriving at the Mapco store just before the time Bunting said they had arranged. We're working on getting the OnStar data and we'll post the relevant bits when we get them. The sheriff's office doesn't have a copy of the store video, unfortunately.
As for Tim Clark's statement that Bennett had called him a few times to ask for money, the file also contains cell phone records for Clark and Bennett. The records show that between July 10 and Sept. 7, Clark and Bennett exchanged no less than 83 calls and texts, "mostly of Clark calling Bennett" the report states. These calls, investigators say, substantially refute the information provided to Sheriff's Office by Tim Clark during an interview on Sept. 9, 2010.
UPDATE: The long story of Nellums, Clark and Bennett
Ervin Bennett, a long haul trucker and car detailer, told investigators that Michael Nellums had been his neighbor and friend for over 10 years, with Nellums helping him renovate his house and Bennett detailing Nellums' car on occassion. Bennett also started doing light groundskeeping work for Nellums at Mills High School, paid out of petty cash.
In early July 2010, Bennett told investigators, Nellums approached him and asked for help in getting a "dirty" school board member named Gwen Williams voted off the board. Bennett said Nellums told him he wanted Bennett to give Williams some money and a person with a camera would take a picture of the transaction to make it appear to be a bribe.
Originally, Bennett said, he rebuffed Nellums, saying his wife knew her (she didn't). Not wanting to refuse Nellums because of all the help he'd given Bennett while renovating his house, Bennett eventually agreed to help in exchange for $1,500.
A week later, while he was staying in a hotel in Poplar Bluff, Mo., while driving a truck, Bennett said he received a call from Nellums, who gave him the number of a friend named "Tim." Bennett later identified "Tim" in a photo lineup as then school-board president Tim Clark. Bennett said he called Tim, and Tim told him "about all of the wrong things" Gwen Williams had done. According to Bennett, Tim then asked if they could meet soon to discuss how to "trap her."
On August 13, 2010, Bennett said, he, Tim and Nellums met at the Cheers restaurant in Maumelle to discuss the plan. Tim gave Bennett a script for what to say on the phone, and told him to call Gwen Williams and say he was a concrete contractor who wanted to work on the sidewalks at Harris Elementary. After that, Bennett was to give her an envelope with money in it.
Here's a copy of the "script" Bennett said he was given.
After several attempts to reach her, Bennett was able to call Williams and talk about getting a sidewalk contract. She said she would meet with him once he'd put in a bid. At one point, Bennett said, he tried to call her and tip her off that Tim and Nellums were trying to frame her, but her phone had been turned off. With Tim and Nellums increasingly pressuring Bennett to set up the sting, Bennett began actively lying to them. He said they called him four or five times a day to see when the meeting with Williams would be set up. After awhile, he made contact with a private investigator named Craig Tissue, who eventually filmed Bennett giving Williams a white envelope with $200 in it. Bennett said Tim had given him $600, and an additional $200 to put in the envelope.
Bennett's brother, Tracy Bunting — after retrieving the Ritz cracker box containing Bennett's payoff (Bennett was reportedly stiffed, given only $1,000 for helping with the video instead of the agreed-upon $1,500) and expense money for Nellums from a man he later identified as Tim Clark at a North Little Rock gas station — delivered envelopes containing audio and video of the Gwen Williams sting to the homes of Pulaski County School Board members, several of whom went to the Pulaski County sheriff's office with the information. Bunting said Nellums paid him $200 for the deliveries.
On Sept. 2, 2010, Bunting called Bennett and told him that he'd seen Bennett on TV. The sheriff's office had turned over portions of the Gwen Williams sting footage to the media in hopes of identifying the man in the video or the distinctive, chromed-out Dodge Ram in the background — Bennett and his personal truck.
Bennett said he called Nellums, who told him they hadn't anticipated the video falling into the hands of the police rather than Williams simply resigning. Nellums told Bennett that prints had been found on the letters delivered by Bunting, and told him to strip the chrome items off his truck so it would be less recognizable.
Later, Tim called, and asked to meet Bennett in University Park. When they met, Bennett said he turned down Tim's offer of additional money. "Tim then asked if if I was willing to go to his attorney and tell him the truth about the contacts and Ms. Williams wanted her pawns [sic] greased. He then asked me how much it would take and he started offering me more money. I told him no. He then told me that his attorney was a black guy and he would work out everything." Bennett said Clark offered him $5,000, but he turned him down. This conversation is apparently the source of the heavily-edited "Erv" audio tape Clark provided to the sheriff's office.
After the meeting, Bennett said, Nellums called and told him they should meet. They met at an auto parts store, and Bennett said Nellums gave him an additional $2,400 in cash to rent a car for a month so his easily-recognizable Dodge Ram could be hidden until the heat was off.
Unbeknownst to Bennett, private investigator Craig Tissue visited the Pulaski County sheriff's office on Sept. 3 and told investigators that he was the man who shot the Gwen Williams sting footage. He identified the man in the video as "Irving." Investigators eventually identified "Irving" as Ervin Bennett. A few days later, Tissue identified Michael Nellums as "Mike," the man who paid him to shoot the footage.
Soon after, Bennett came home to find the business card of a Pulaski County sheriff's office investigator on his mailbox. After retaining a lawyer recommended to him by Tim, he eventually obtained immunity from prosecution from the Pulaski County prosecutor in exchange for telling his side of the story.
Jegley made no effort to ascribe a motive to the plot to embarrass Williams and force her off the school board. Williams had her suspicions, however, which she shared in an interview with Sheriff's Office investigators. She was a critical vote in a heated controversy between the school board and the teachers' union, which the then-School Board had stopped recognizing. Subsequent elections defeated several anti-union board members and the the union won recognition again. Clark was an anti-union vote and Nellums has had disputes with the teachers union.
Tim Clark's full statement appears below:
To all interested,
I am extremely disappointed that reports have circulated that dispute the actual events that occurred. I am innocent and will make every effort possible to clear my name.
I intend to set the record straight once and for all. Here are the facts:
I never asked Mr. Bennett or anyone else to contact Gwen Williams to make any type of bribe.
Mr. Bennett called me a number of times and that is reflected in phone records. He asked for money, and I never gave him a cent.
I never recruited Mr. Bennett to do anything much less provide him with a script.
I met with Mr. Bennett once and recorded the conversation. During that conversation, he again asked for money. I never gave him a cent. I told him to call the police numerous times. There are witnesses to these conversations that overheard my telling Mr. Bennett to contact the police.
I have never laid eyes on Mr. Tissue. I did not hire him; I did not give him money; and I did not ask him or anyone else to create a video.
I did not give money to Mr. Nellums to give to Mr. Bennett, Mr. Tissue or anyone else.
Gwen Williams originally stated the money was a gift, and $100 was in the envelope. Mr. Bennett said the envelope contained $250. I don't know what was in the envelope because again, I had nothing to do with it.
We believe individuals in Mr. Jegley's office offered Mr. Bennett immunity and it appears those people based their report entirely on this man's allegations. Mr Jegley's office did not contact me prior to releasing last week's report.
That is all I will say about this matter.
Thank you for your time and attention.