Former Pine Bluff alderman Billy Freeman Sr., who served a federal prison term after admitting guilt in an attempted extortion scheme here in 2003, hasn’t made a payment since first agreeing more than eight years ago to reimburse the City of Pine Bluff a total of $176,848 in stolen funds.
Meanwhile, the city will soon be paying a $23,200 portion of that amount to its HOME Investment Trust Account as restitution for federal Housing and Urban Development Department funds dispersed through the city and unaccounted for by Freeman.
In an Aug. 15 letter to Clint Johnson, acting director of Community Planning and Development of HUD’s Little Rock office, Pine Bluff Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. pledged the city’s compliance with the agency’s requirement for reimbursement, which is to be made by March 2013 from “non-federal resources.”
Meanwhile, the situation has apparently raised the ire of the mayor, who wrote in the letter to HUD, “The city will also seek all avenues to recover its cost through collection of restitution from Mr. Billy Freeman Sr. This action is pursuant to a judgment entered against him directing him to reimburse the city in the amount indicated.”
Pine Bluff City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said she is working with Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter to collect the entire debt from Freeman, who agreed to a settlement plan arranged by previous prosecutor Steven Dalrymple in 2004. Freeman later contested the total, but wound up again accepting Dalrymple’s original offer.
Freeman, who will be 66 in December, was to have begun making $50 monthly payments in 2007. As of October, he was in arrears by 67 payments totaling $3,350. At the $50 monthly rate, if Freeman began making and remained current with the interest-free installments, the amount would not be paid in full until the year 2307, when Freeman would be 360 years old.
Hunter said Freeman’s restitution to the city was imposed as a judgment when Freeman was sentenced. Hunter said he’s “exploring options” against Freeman, and there’s a possibility the matter may wind up in circuit court for determination on what the prosecutor termed an “authority issue.”
Freeman pleaded guilty in April 2004 to aiding and abetting attempted Hobbs Act extortion by teaming with then-fellow alderman Jack Foster in a 2003 plot in which the pair offered to sell their council votes in exchange for cash “loans” and “gifts,” in part to help Freeman cover a returned $71,648 check he wrote to the city. Freeman was advanced that amount from city funds.
Freeman’s check — declined because of insufficient funds — figures in with the $23,200 in HUD monies in his restitution to the city. The remaining $82,000 to be reimbursed by Freeman is for city funds he received for a downtown district study that he never conducted and was discovered not to have been requested by Pine Bluff Downtown Development Inc. as Freeman had indicated. The offenses date back to Freeman’s tenure as executive director of his non-profit Southeast Arkansas Community Development Corp.
Freeman was sentenced in March 2005 to 13 months imprisonment and ordered to pay $350,000 restitution to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the federal charge and received a six-year term on a state charge of theft of property, with the jail time to run concurrently. The federal reimbursement, which raised his total indebtedness to $526,848, was for a DHHS grant he received through SACDC for a proposed Altheimer vegetable processing plant that was never constructed. Efforts to determine if Freeman, who was released from prison after serving less than a year, is making payments toward or has retired the DHHS debt were unsuccessful as the agency failed to respond to inquiries.
Foster was convicted by a jury on the same federal charge as Freeman and sentenced to 36 months imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment. Foster appealed his conviction, which was upheld by the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in April 2006.
In an Oct. 19 letter to Redus, HUD Little Rock Field Office Director Alice Rufus told Redus that the agency’s finding on the 2004 HOME Program involved a city-approved appropriation “for acquisition of property” by SACDC “in which funds were not expended as intended or approved and, therefore, disallowed.” The finding was originally identified in May 2004.
Rufus said the city’s reimbursement to its HOME Program fund “will be sufficient to clear this finding.” But until the reimbursement is made and then verified to HUD, the matter will remain open, Rufus said.
Redus, who became mayor in 2005, said he wasn’t aware of Freeman’s restitution agreement and payment failures until July, when he received a letter from HUD outlining its proposal for the city to close the matter with the payment to the city’s HOME fund.
The mayor said that Freeman’s failure to pay his restitution is causing the city additional financial damage. “The city will unfortunately be paying the $23,200 amount with general revenue funds,” he said. “The city is doing well fiscally, but that’s still an unexpected, sizable expense. And I think it’s important to remember that all the money he’s agreed to reimburse was generated by taxpayers, and that makes it public funds.”
Redus said that his research indicates that the $82,000 Freeman received for the downtown study “came directly out of the city’s general funds” and wasn’t connected to a grant. The mayor said he is unaware of Freeman’s current financial status and if the former alderman is capable of quickly settling his debts.
“But if he can, I think he should,” said Redus. “I’m not sure it’s within the city’s authority to demand full payment. That’s something for the prosecuting attorney to decide.”
Efforts to contact Freeman, who reportedly still resides in Pine Bluff, were unsuccessful.