LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge on Tuesday denied former Arkansas treasurer Martha Shoffner’s request that he throw out her conviction on federal extortion and bribery charges.
A federal jury found Shoffner guilty of 14 extortion and bribery counts on March 11. Jurors reached the verdict after hearing testimony that broker Steele Stephens made seven cash payments to Shoffner and that she steered a disproportionate amount of the state’s investment business to Stephens, who was granted immunity from prosecution for his cooperation with the government.
Shoffner’s lawyers filed a motion March 21 arguing that she should be acquitted because the transactions between her and Stephens did not affect interstate commerce and did not involve federal money, and because Shoffner never agreed to provide anything to Stephens in return for the money.
In a 15-page order, U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes said Tuesday that the government presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s decision.
Regarding the argument that interstate commerce was not affected, Holmes said Shoffner was convicted of extortion “under color of official right,” meaning that she used her leverage as state treasurer to extort money from Stephens.
Shoffner had argued that the money she received from Stephens did not affect interstate commerce, but Holmes said Tuesday that in return for the money, Shoffner directed bond transactions to Stephens, and the bond transactions did affect interstate commerce.
“It was the exercise of her leverage over interstate commerce, not the effect of depriving Stephens of (six payments of) $6,000, that established the necessary effect on interstate commerce,” Holmes said in his order.
Holmes also said the jury heard testimony that federal grant money is included in the money that the state treasurer’s office has to invest, so the jury could reasonably conclude that federal money was involved.
As for the argument that there was no agreement for Shoffner to provide anything in exchange for the money she received from Stephens, Holmes said there was ample evidence that after Stephens began making payments to Shoffner, he received a share of the state’s investment business that dwarfed that of his competitors.
Holmes also said the government’s evidence showed Shoffner and Stephens took steps to keep their arrangement secret — steps that included Stephens buying a cell phone for Shoffner and Shoffner throwing the phone into a river when the FBI began investigating her.
“The jury could reasonably conclude that the favoritism showed to Stephens by Shoffner resulted from his payments to her,” Holmes said in the order.
Shoffner’s attorneys did not immediately return call Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.
The former Democratic treasurer has not yet been sentenced. She faces up to to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each extortion count and up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each bribery count.
She also is scheduled to stand trial Dec. 1 on 10 federal counts of mail fraud. Prosecutors allege she used campaign contributions to make payments on a personal credit card.