Judge Issues New Sanctions Against Federal Prosecutors in Little Rock

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson has backed off on the sanctions he imposed against federal prosecutors in Little Rock late last year, but Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen has taken up the slack.

In an order issued Wednesday afternoon, Griffen imposed his own sanctions against three federal prosecutors whom he identified by name: U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Angela Jegley and Patricia S. Harris.

Even more ominously, Griffen said he would submit his findings and Wilson's "to the Arkansas Office of Professional Conduct for investigation and consideration of disciplinary action."

Both orders for sanctions grew out of prosecutorial action in a high-profile case involving the USA Drug chain and its former marketing executive, Garret Sorensen.

A federal grand jury in 2009 issued criminal charges against Sorensen, his wife and sister-in-law for skimming $525,000 from USA Drug, and the pharmacy chain's parent company, Stephen L. LaFrance Holdings Inc., made identical charges in a civil case filed in circuit court.

The defendants weren't entitled to depose witnesses in the criminal case, but when Judge Griffen ordered depositions to go forward in the civil case last fall, the federal prosecutors unilaterally moved the civil case out of state court and into federal court.

Judge Wilson ultimately sent the civil case back to circuit court and sanctioned the U.S. Attorney's Office, led by Thyer, for improperly interfering with the defendants' right to discovery.

The prosecutors appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis and also asked Wilson to reconsider, which he did after Thyer repented of his original statement that he would "do it again if the need arises."

"The Government now concedes that 'removing the action was not the means to pursue [its] goal, and the United States does not intend to invoke the removal statute if similar circumstances present themselves in the future,'" Wilson wrote, quoting the prosecutors' motion for relief from the sanctions. "This concession falls a tad shy of an unalloyed concession; but it does indicate that the Government understands that is procedure was inappropriate."

He granted the motion on May 25, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

He has not granted any relief to LaFrance's former attorney in the civil case, Ryan Solomon, whom he had sanctioned for extreme efforts to help his clients - Stephen LaFrance Sr. and his sons, Stephen Jr. and Jason - avoid sitting for depositions. "As my earlier Orders reflect, the worst transgressions were by private counsel," Wilson wrote.

Meanwhile, in Circuit Court

After maintaining his innocence for almost three years, Garret Sorensen suddenly pleaded guilty on May 2, and charges against his wife and her sister were dropped.

Pleading guilty to a felony made it hard for Sorensen to continue with his countersuit accusing the LaFrances of defamation. So last week, LaFrance Holdings and the Sorensens filed a joint motion to dismiss the civil case entirely.

"Restitution will be ordered, so it would be redundant" to continue the civil case, said Rick Donovan, the Rose Law Firm attorney who replaced Solomon in representing the LaFrances. "We'll be relying on whatever Judge Wilson imposes on Sorensen."

Hours later, without taking action on the motion to dismiss, Griffen dropped the hammer on the federal prosecutors, who had enjoyed the long weekend under the impression they were off the hook.

Neither LaFrance Holdings nor the federal prosecutors tried to use available court rules to protect the LaFrances from inappropriate discovery requests. Instead, Griffen scolded, "By improperly removing this action to Federal Court the United States Attorney obtained by willfully calculated and underhanded conduct what this Court expressly denied - interruption and suspension of discovery. The government knew what it was doing, purposely did it, and should not now be treated as if its conduct never happened or is somehow excusable. The improper purpose to thwart discovery is obvious. The Government's conduct was blatantly disobedient. Therefore, sanctions are warranted."

Even though no one had asked Griffen to impose sanctions on the prosecutors, he ordered the federal government to pay "all reasonable attorney's fees" associated with moving the case to federal court and back.

Little Rock defense attorneys Pat James, who represented Garret and Katherine Sorensen, and Chuck Banks, who represented Shannon Walters, were ordered to submit statements of their fees within 10 days.

"I intend to comply with court orders," James said. Banks hadn't yet read the order when reached by a reporter Wednesday evening.

U.S. Attorney Thyer said it was premature for him to say exactly how he would respond to Griffen's order.

"We will be responding appropriately in an appropriate court and in an appropriate manner," he said.

Previously

Long-running embezzlement case yield "a legal perfect storm."