Ex-County official admits to bribery scheme involving federal disaster aid

LITTLE ROCK — A former Ouachita County judge pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal bribery charge in connection with a scheme to exchange federal disaster recovery funds for a campaign contribution.

James Michael Hesterly, who resigned earlier this year as Ouachita County judge, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in El Dorado to bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds, court records show.

A date for sentencing was not immediately announced. The offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

A plea agreement filed Wednesday states that the government and Hesterly agree he should pay $4,000 in restitution as part of his sentence.

Hesterly’s attorney, James. M. Pratt Jr., declined to comment on the case Wednesday.

The plea agreement states that Hesterly admits to the government’s allegations that in 2010 he awarded a contract totaling nearly $70,000 to contractor Harry Clemons Jr. to clean up debris from 2009 storms, in return for which Clemons contributed $4,000 to Hesterly’s election campaign.

Three-fourths of the cost of the contract was to be paid with federal disaster funds that became available under a December 2009 federal disaster declaration following tornadoes, flooding and severe storms in the region.

A March 16, 2010, conversation in which Hesterly proposed the scheme and Clemons agreed to it was secretly recorded by another contractor, Jeff Davis, who was working with the FBI in investigating public corruption in Ouachita County.

Clemons arranged for two phony bids to be submitted for the project so it would appear that a legitimate bidding process had taken place, federal prosecutors allege. Clemons pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with major disaster benefits and has not yet been sentenced.

Hesterly was indicted and arrested in January 2013. He entered a not-guilty plea that month but changed his plea on Wednesday.

Hesterly also had been charged in the indictment with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with major disaster benefits and making a false statement to an FBI agent, but the government agreed to drop those charges as part of the plea agreement.