Circuit Judge Dan Kemp
, a candidate for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, has now spoken with
D-G columnist John Brummett
about questions raised regarding his handling of a 2014 criminal case. Blue Hog Report blogger Matt Campbell
has argued that Kemp should have recused himself on a drug case involving the daughter of prominent Stone County banker and political player Jim Hinkle
. In a blog post today
, Brummett relays Kemp's side of things — he says he did nothing wrong, never asked Hinkle for money, and implies that he's the victim of a political hit job.
Here's the gist of the controversy: Hinkle's daughter reached a misdemeanor plea deal on felony drug charges with prosecutors, with rehab treatment part of the deal. Judge Kemp accepted the deal, a relatively favorable one for Hinkle's daughter. Again, the plea deal was struck with prosecutors, and I haven't heard any sort of convincing argument that it was inappropriate. Nevertheless, Campbell argues that rather than signing off on it as judge, Kemp should have recused because Hinkle was a longtime friend and potential political supporter (Hinkle eventually donated to Kemp's campaign and sent out a supportive email backing his bid for chief justice). Campbell made a complaint to the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission
about Kemp's handling of Hinkle's daughter's case, and his campaign's recent statements regarding that case. Campbell thought that there was at least the appearance of impropriety and Kemp should have recused.
Then yesterday, Campbell upped the ante on the controversy by publishing an interview with Sheffield Nelson
, a lawyer, businessman and longtime political figure. Nelson dishes out some hearsay gossip in what is basically a game of telephone: Nelson says that Hinkle (a close friend) called him after his daughter's plea deal — and said that Kemp called Hinkle after the case was over and asked for money and political support. The implication: Kemp was asking for campaign cash in return for favorable treatment of Hinkle's daughter.
Before I go on, I think it's worth explicitly stating what everyone is thinking/assuming: This looks like an oppo research dump. Nelson is a Goodson supporter and has raised money for her campaign. I do not know what prompted Campbell's interest in this issue but, as Benji and Lindsey noted on yesterday's podcast, it just so happens that from time to time in this business, politicians and their allies feed folks like us (or Blue Hog Report!) possibly damaging info about their opponents. That doesn't mean it's not true, or not worthy of investigation! But I think at this point in this kerfuffle, we may as well make the subtext into text: Goodson's allies are trying to dig up dirt on Kemp.
Brummett largely paraphrases Kemp so I'm going to quote at length from his blog rather than Kemp directly:
Here is Kemp’s scenario:
Hinkle’s 42-year-old eldest daughter got arrested on drug charges in late October 2014. In November 2014, Kemp signed off on an agreement between the prosecutor and the defense attorney to continue the case while the daughter went to rehab.
A year later, last November, days after Kemp had announced as a candidate for chief justice against Goodson, the prosecutor brought the matter before the court because the rehab had been completed.
The plea arrangement for a misdemeanor conviction of driving while intoxicated by drugs was based on a first offense, which Kemp said he remembered asking the deputy prosecutor to confirm. That was based on what was in the file regarding the license number check from the arrest the year before, which reflected that the Arkansas Crime Information Center report came back showing no felonies or outstanding warrants.
We need to fix that, Kemp said. He’s seen it happen elsewhere – meaning an inaccurate ACIC report.
Anyway, the case was ended – meaning the plea negotiation accepted – last Nov. 10.
Kemp says he and his wife came to Little Rock that evening to fly out for a long-planned vacation the next morning, and returned on the 20th, and that the earliest he could have called Hinkle was Nov. 21.
He has some notes from that day seeming to reflect South Arkansas contacts that either Hinkle or Hinkle’s wife gave him.
It is customary for judge candidates to call well-connected people to ask for help and to seek referrals to people who might help them in other parts of the state.
But not to ask for money. A judge candidate is not to do that directly.
Kemp said he called Hinkle to seek his campaign help, but that he of course knew better than to ask for money, for that was forbidden, and that he most certainly did not do so.
Kemp said Hinkle would back up his story; like Brummett we've tried to get in touch with Hinkle, but he's apparently vacationing in Hawaii.
Kemp said there was no shakedown or attempt to link Hinkle's support to Kemp's handling of his daughter's case:
Kemp said the daughter’s case came up in that conversation, yes, but in this way: He told Hinkle the case was settled, as Hinkle already knew, and that the only context he was intending to apply was that he was free to ask for Hinkle’s campaign help without that matter pending.
In other words, it’s over, it’s no longer a conflict in our discussion about your helping me in this campaign.
“It’s what candidates do," Kemp said of his call to Hinkle. "You ask people to support you. You don’t ask for money, though, and I didn’t.”
Here's Kemp on the recusal question:
I didn’t see any reason. It was carried over from a year before. I know the Hinkles, of course, but I know the families of a lot of people who come through court. Now, I did recuse from a case – in August, I think – when the case of a child of the woman who does my taxes came through. But that was because of a direct business relationship, which didn’t exist here.
Kemp on what he thinks is behind the story:
Finally, Kemp reminded me that, in a phone conversation we had last November, he declared himself fairly certain the Goodson forces would find something about which to launch a last-minute smear, and that he told me at that time: “They can damage my reputation. But they can’t damage my character.”
To be honest, I think my read on this story is colored by my own perspective on the criminal justice system: prosecutorial discretion leading to more treatment and less jail time on nonviolent drug offenses is a good thing
! It seems like the disposition of the case in question was the proper one.
Is there fire in this smoke? I won't pretend to know, but I'll say that the supposed quid pro quo doesn't make all that much sense to me. The prosecutors struck the deal. Isn't the prosecutor the key actor here? How often do judges refuse to accept a plea deal a prosecutor makes? In a drug case in which the defendant had agreed to rehab? Local lawyers, tell me if I'm missing something (my only experience with criminal court was an old gig in Orleans Parish, but at least there, the judge typically had little to nothing to do with the plea deal reached between the defense and the prosecution).
I have no doubt that the daughter of a prominent family in Stone County was always going to end up with a better outcome in court than your average drug-charge defendant. That is too bad, although from my perspective the problem is overzealous prosecution of poor defendants, not lenient treatment of wealthy/connected defendants. But it's a little hard to read Kemp signing off on the plea agreement as some kind of sweetheart deal that he would ask for a payback for. It's not like Hinkle is a rube. It seems like the outcome would have been more or less the same with a different judge sitting — so would it even be coherent for Kemp to suggest to Hinkle that he was doing him a favor? Again, local lawyers, am I missing something?
Hinkle will have a lot of voicemail awaiting him when he gets back from the beach.