by Max Brantley
My sources have alerted me that former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner will appear in court at that time to enter a negotiated plea related to the federal extortion charge filed May 20 that alleged she used her public office to get payments from a securities broker who'd been given a big share of the treasurers's state bond investments. She resigned her state office the next day, with 19 months to run in her term.
A guilty plea would be an important step toward reducing the potential sentence she would face on conviction, up to a maximum of 20 years. A criminal lawyer had earlier run an estimate on a potential sentence under the guidelines that indicated a conviction at trial could bring a minimum of roughly five years of jail time. A guilty plea and other cooperation could reduce that, though few expect a public official accused of such a crime to escape prison time.
The sentence won't follow the plea today. Sentencing would follow a full report by the probation office.
Shoffner, 68, has been free on personal recognizance since her initial appearance in federal court. She spent two nights in the County Jail after her arrest by the FBI May 18. They swooped into her Newport home after the unidentified cooperating securities broker — identified by our sources as Steele Stephens — delivered her a pie that concealed $6,000 in $100 bills. He'd earlier recorded a phone call with Shoffner in which he discussed her cash payments.
The hearing might give an indication of whether the investigation extends beyond Shoffner and the broker, who's been given immunity from federal prosecution. Typically, state prosecutors defer to federal decisions in such cases, though avenues might be open to state charges against Shoffner and others. That, too, will be a question following the hearing.
The state Securities Department is reviewing the case. Stephens resigned from his position at St. Bernard Financial Services shortly after the case broke. Robert Keenan, chief executive of St. Bernard, has defended his firm's investment practices (some trades came under scrutiny by legislators) and said he had no idea of any illicit activities by anyone working for him. He said he has never been interviewed by federal agents about the case.