Pulaski County Judge Griffen Finds U.S. Attorney's Office in Contempt

by Gwen Moritz  on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 3:51 pm  

Arkansas Circuit Judge Wendall Griffen (left) and Christopher Thyer, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Friday found that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Little Rock was in contempt of court for failing to pay three private defense attorneys the fees he had ordered more than a year ago.

"The conduct of the government in this case all but sickens me," Griffen said at the conclusion of a tense hour-long hearing Friday morning.

The case is a convoluted one involving a former USA Drug marketing executive, Garret Sorensen. While federal prosecutors were ultimately successful in getting Sorensen to plead guilty, they were sanctioned by Griffen — and, briefly, by U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson — for improperly moving a related civil case out of Griffen's state court and into federal court.

The government's "willful disobedience" to his order, Griffen said, "is consistent with the way the United States has behaved since its intervention in the case."

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris promptly delivered checks totaling $12,702 to the three attorneys — Pat James, Erin Cassinelli and Chuck Banks — and thereby avoided an additional fine of $300 per day for any further delays in complying with the sanctions Griffen imposed on Sept. 12, 2012.

But Harris formally objected to the sanctions and the fees, and U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer said the government had merely been waiting for Griffen to close the case so that an appeal of the sanctions could begin.

"Yes, it could have been done a year ago had he entered an order," Thyer told Arkansas Business. "We'd be at the [state] Supreme Court by now."

Thyer also told Arkansas Business that his office still does not agree with the two judges' conclusion that it was wrong for federal prosecutors to move the civil case from state court to federal court.

"What we said [to Judge Wilson] was that we wouldn't do it again," he said, referring to a successful motion to have Wilson lift his sanctions.

In his written order, filed within an hour of adjournment of the hearing (PDF), Griffen wrote: "The persistent refusal to comply with court rulings shows that, at least in this instance, the United States is an exception to the notion that one grows wiser with the passage of time." 

The Argument

The essence of Harris' argument at Friday's hearing was that voluntarily paying the attorneys' fees associated with the sanctions imposed by Griffen would effectively waive the federal prosecutors' right to appeal. Meanwhile, Griffen had refused to dismiss the civil case, as all parties wanted, until the attorneys' fees were paid, and no appeal could be filed until a final order was entered closing the case.



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