Jury hears opening arguments in Shoffner trial


LITTLE ROCK — A federal prosecutor told the jury in former Arkansas treasurer Martha Shoffner’s extortion and bribery trial Wednesday that it would hear testimony that Shoffner often complained about her income before beginning to accept bribes from a broker.

Shoffner’s attorney told the jury the defense would make the case that Shoffner had violated state ethics laws by accepting gifts in addition to her salary and not reporting them, but that she had broken no federal laws.

Shoffner’s trial on six counts of extortion, one count of attempted extortion and seven counts of receipt of bribery began Wednesday with the seating of a jury and opening statements from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jana Harris and Shoffner’s lawyer, Chuck Banks. The trial in U.S. District Court in Little Rock is expected to last until late next week.

Harris told the jury of seven women and five men that Shoffner “often complained about not having enough money. In her position as treasurer, she was head of the treasurer’s office, but I anticipate the testimony will show that she made less money than some of the other employees who worked in the office … so she often complained about her salary.”

Harris said the jury would hear a former broker — Steele Stephens, who has been offered immunity from prosecution for his cooperation — testify that he entered into a scheme with Shoffner to make $6,000 payments to her every six months, sometimes delivering the cash to her in a pie box, in return for which Shoffner steered a inordinate amount of the state’s business to Stephens.

After a series of transactions, “Steele Stephens had almost $400 million in business. I anticipate you will hear that was more than any other broker had ever had, and more than any broker had at that same time,” Harris said.

Banks told the jury that by the time it had heard all the testimony, it would see that Shoffner, who was elected to office and has never been a broker, did not have the financial expertise to craft the scheme the government alleged.

“She didn’t know how to trade bonds. She didn’t even know how to email bonds,” Banks said.

Banks said the jury would learn that employees in Shoffner’s office had more expertise than she did and that some of the personally disliked her and wanted to discredit her. He also said the jury would learn that Shoffner did accept monetary gifts and failed to report them, but that there was no “quid pro quo” and that the bond transactions were good transactions.

“Not one dime, not a dime, was lost to the state of Arkansas,” he said.

Shoffner, who served as a Democrat, had been under investigation for more than a year because of suspect bond transactions in her office when federal authorities took her into custody at her Newport home May 18 after an informant delivered a $6,000 cash payment in a pie box. She resigned three days later.

If convicted, Shoffner 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.

The government filed an additional 10 counts of mail fraud against Shoffner last month, alleging that she used campaign contributions to make payments on a personal credit card. A trial on those charges is set for March 31. Shoffner could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined up to $250,000 on each count if convicted in that case.