Update: Martha Shoffner Withdraws Planned Guilty Plea

by Gwen Moritz  on Friday, May. 31, 2013 2:32 pm  

Update: In an unexpected move that "embarrassed" her attorney, former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner withdrew a planned guilty plea Friday afternoon because she said she didn't demand the bribes she admitted taking.

U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer told reporters after the aborted hearing that prosecutors would take the case to the grand jury, possibly next week. And he said prosecutors would seek "two or three" charges rather the single count of extortion to which Shoffner had initially agreed to plead guilty.

Shoffner, arrested 13 days ago at her Newport home, waived her right to an indictment by grand jury and admitted taking bribes of at least $36,000 from a bond broker who did business with the state. But under oath, she told U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes that, contrary to the charge read by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jana Harris, she did not "demand" the payoffs.

"Yes, but it was offered. I didn't demand it," she said.

When Holmes asked if she had, as alleged, directed business to the unidentified broker in exchange for the bribes, she said, "Not intentionally."

At that point, Holmes told Shoffner and her attorney, Chuck Banks, "I do not think we're 'there' on the elements" of the crime as alleged, and Banks agreed. Holmes said he could not accept a guilty plea from a defendant who disputed the facts alleged, and he gave Banks time to consult with Shoffner.

In about two minutes, Banks and Shoffner returned to the podium before Holmes, and Banks announced that his client wanted to be indicted and to stand trial. 

Holmes said he would have to consider what to do since Shoffner had already waived her right to a grand jury indictment. Then he quickly adjourned court.

'Obviously Wasn't Planned'

Banks then approached the federal prosecutors' table and told Harris that this "obviously wasn't planned." Later he told reporters that he was "very embarrassed" that the hearing didn't go as scheduled, but he said he was pleased with Holmes' handling of the events and that his client has the opportunity to continue exercising her constitutional rights.

Pat Harris, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney, said after the hearing that "it happens" that plea agreements sometimes fall apart. As for the waiver of indictment, he said, "It goes away."

Before allowing Shoffner to waive her right to have the accusations heard first by a grand jury, Holmes quizzed Banks as to whether he had any reason to think that his client was not competent to enter a plea. When Banks said he had no concerns, Holmes found Shoffner competent.



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