by Max Brantley
David Koon provides reporting from the scene:
Shoffner arrived about 1:30 p.m. for the unannounced waiver hearing. She wouldn't comment to reporters about our report that a plea bargain was in the works and that Shoffner would plead guilty as a step toward reducing her punishment for extorting money from a securities broker who did business with the state.
In court, the U.S. attorney read the elements of the charge first revealed at her court appearance May 20. Again, the cooperating government informant was not identified. Our sources have said he is Steele Stephens, now a former employee of St. Bernard Financial Services, which grew to have $500 million in state bond business through his relationship with Shoffner.
Trouble began when Judge Holmes asked Shoffner, after she waived indictment, if she understood she had a right to plead guilty or not guilty. After a long pause, she proclaimed: "Guilty."
The judge then explained he was not seeking a plea at that point, but a yes or no answer on whether she understood she was not required to plead guilty.
The judge subsequently began asking Shoffner questions.
Were you taking money, he asked.
Yes, but it was offered, she said. "I didn't demand it."
Did you intentionally direct business to the broker, the judge asked.
I didn't do it intentionally, Shoffner responded.
He then asked if the money she received had anything to do with her job as treasurer.
She said it didn't.
At that point, the judge said, "I don't think we're there on the elements of the statute." He denied her attempt to plead guilty and the hearing ended after Banks and Shoffner conferred briefly (Banks took her to the side of the courtroom, put his hand on her shoulder and spoke for maybe 20 seconds) and then said she would face indictment and stand trial.
U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer said afterward that the failure of the plea was unexpected and he was disappointed. He said he'd never seen a plea fall apart like this in his career. "My office will proceed to indict Miss Shoffner for what we alleged in the complaint. We'll present the case to the Grand Jury very soon." He said he didn't know if the waiver of indictment was moot or not, since she'd entered it, but he'd be safe by proceeding to the Grand Jury.
Thyer also said a Grand Jury might well add additional charges to the single charge Shoffner faced today.
He said he'd never say never to another plea agreement, but "at this point we are abandoning all those efforts."
He wouldn't comment on what the U.S. attorney was prepared to offer Shoffner in return for her plea.
Shoffner commented briefly to reporters as she left with Banks. "There were just questions I couldn't answer," she said. She apologized to the people of the state of Arkansas.
Banks said he might have more to say tomorrow.
PS — That pie in which the informant hid $6,000 in $100 bills when he made the wired visit to Shoffner's home in Newport May 18? It was apple, the government revealed today. The source remains unknown.
PPS — In the runup to the plea, speculation about Shoffner's defense had run in the direction she more or less hinted at by her answers to the judges questions. She wasn't engaged in knowing illegal acts. It would go like this: She had a long familiarity with Stephens' family because his father grew up in Newport. They'd supported her races for state legislature and treasurer. Their friendship was such that he did many small favors for her — taking care of her aging dog, helping her find people to mow her yard. He's doing business with the state (legitimate business, he and she would argue) and she mentions she needs money, $1,000 a month, to pay for rent on a Little Rock apartment. He helps out. What are friends for? It's a thin defense, but given the evidence it might be all she has. And she may even have grown to convince herself of it. But a jury? Not likely. Shoffner is also 68 and many who've worked with her have commented on her confusion or lack of clarity. It was evident in her disastrous appearances (and one non-appearance) before Legislative Audit.
PPS — I note that the charge to which Shoffner was to plead was modified slightly, with a significant reduction in maximum penalty to 10 years. I'd heard that the plea bargaining, with expected cooperation, might have left Shoffner looking at no more than two years in confinement.
UPDATE: I have David's more detailed notes from today's hearing:
PROSECUTION READS OFF A LIST OF CHARGES, INCLUDING THAT SHOFFNER ACCEPTED $36,000 IN FUNDS FROM "A BROKER" IN EXCHANGE FOR DIVERTING STATE BOND BUSINESS TO THE BROKER, PROVIDING SHOFFNER $1,000 A MONTH TO PAY HER RENT IN $6,000 INSTALLMENTS EVERY SIX MONTHS. THE LAST TWO PAYMENTS WERE MADE BY STUFFING THE MONEY INTO APPLE PIE BOXES. PROSECUTION SAYS SHOFFNER HAD $4,020 LEFT OVER FROM A PREVIOUS PAYMENT FROM THE BROKER AT THE TIME OF HER ARREST.
JUDGE LEON HOLMES: Ms. Shoffner, did you follow all that?
JLH: Is all that true?
JLH: Can you tell me in your own words what you did that makes you guilty of these charges.
MS: It's as stated — what she read, your Honor. ....
JLH: Were you taking money from this broker?
MS: Yes, but it was offered. I didn't demand it.
JLH: Did you direct business from the state to that broker?
MS: Not intentionally.
JLH: Did you intend to be influenced or rewarded in connection with the money that you received? What was the purpose of the money?
MS: For rent. Apartment rent.
JLH: Did it have anything to do with your decisions as the Treasurer?
JLH: This is the first time that I've dealt with this statute, but I have a suspicion we're not there on the elements, Mr. Banks. What do you think?
CHUCK BANKS: Well, I don't think we are, Judge. ... I do not think we are there on the elements.
JLH: I don't think we're there. I don't think we have those. Ms. Shoffner, let me just — and I want you to understand too and everybody else here. Before I can accept your guilty plea ... I would have to know that you are admitting to all the elements that the government would have to prove in order to convict you. I believe one of those elements is that you intended to be influenced by this money — that it had something to do with the decisions you were making as Treasurer. If you deny that, which you have now under oath, then I cannot accept your guilty plea because that's an element that the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So I'm not going to accept your guilty plea here today. Is there anything else, Mr. Banks?
CB: I just need one minute with her.
JUDGE SAID THEY COULD TALK, AND BANKS AND SHOFFNER CONFER
CB: Your honor, she just reaffirmed, and I'll ask her to do it again on the record. Court pleads that her answers just now were truthful, and she wants to be indicted and stand trial.