County judge indicted on bribery, conspiracy charges


LITTLE ROCK — The Ouachita County judge and the owner of a construction company were indicted Thursday in federal court on charges of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge of the Western District of Arkansas said County Judge James Michael Hesterly, 49, of Camden, and Harry Clemons Jr., 39, of Bearden, were accused in an alleged scheme to award FEMA disaster relief to Clemons in return for a contribution to Hesterly’s 2010 re-election campaign.

Clemons is owner and operator of Clemons Construction.

The news release said the two conspired in 2010 to award Clemons a contract to clean up debris from two tornadoes in the county in exchange for a campaign contribution. The tornadoes occurred in October 2009.

Two other bidders were allegedly recruited to submit intentionally inflated bids to the county judge by fax. Clemons then met with the Hesterly at his the county judge’s office and submitted a bid of $120,730, which was lower than the other two bids, prosecutors said.

Hesterly accepted Clemons’ bid on March 26, 2010, and on April 8 applied for FEMA funding to help the county pay for the contract. The county judge allegedly told FEMA officials that Clemons’ bid was the lowest he received, according to Eldridge.

While state law requires a bid to be advertised for 10 days, the bid on this contract was only advertised for one day, according to the indictment, and no sealed bidding process took place.

In August 2010, Clemons submitted documentation to Hesterly stating that all work on the contract had been completed and requested a payment of $69,865 for his construction company. Clemons also certified to the state and to FEMA that the work required by the contract had been completed.

On Oct. 13, 2010, Hesterly signed an order allowing Clemons’ claim for payment to go through and later that month a check from Ouachita County for $69,865 was written to Clemons Construction.

The indictment charged each man with one count of conspiracy to defraud an agency of the U.S. and two counts of bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds.

If convicted, each man could face up to five years in prison for conspiracy and up to 10 years in prison for each bribery charge.

The two are scheduled to be arraigned Friday in U.S. District Court in El Dorado.

Hesterly did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment Thursday. Clemons could not be reached for comment.