by Luke Jones
Posted 10/15/2012 12:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
Back in 2007, some sales managers at Windstream Corp. had a fun but innocuous idea: They would invite 20 couples from among the Little Rock telecom's best clients to Atlanta for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
On the invitation list: James David Sisney, superintendent of the Broken Arrow School District in Oklahoma, who accepted the invitation and brought his brother along.
At the end of August, more than five years after the "2007 Final Four Customer Appreciation Event," Sisney was charged by a state grand jury in Oklahoma with bribery and conspiracy against a school district.
But bribery is a crime that requires at least two parties, so Windstream was similarly charged with bribery and conspiracy. And a former executive for Windstream in Oklahoma, Eddie Bryson, is facing perjury charges in the same case.
So here's the question: If the school superintendent Windstream hosted at the Big Dance had been from Arkansas rather than Oklahoma, would the company similarly face criminal prosecution?
The answer: Maybe, maybe not.
"Arkansas has pretty watered-down laws on things like that," said Larry Jegley, prosecuting attorney for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Pulaski and Perry counties.
Jegley pointed to Arkansas statute 5-52-101, which does outlaw bribery - in fact, it's worded very similarly to Oklahoma's bribery statute, and carries harsher penalties - but it's called "abuse of public trust." It's a Class D felony and perpetrators could go to prison for up to six years and get fined up to $10,000.
John Threet, chief deputy prosecutor for the 4th Judicial District (Washington and Madison counties) also referred to 5-52-101. But Jegley said it's an uncommon charge.
"It hasn't been used much," he said.
The most recent case in his memory was that of Bill McCuen, the former Arkansas Secretary of State who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to two counts of abuse of public trust (among other charges), and received the maximum sentence for each.
Arkansas also has a statute, 21-8-801, specifically addressing state employees receiving gifts: It prohibits receiving gifts or compensation other than those provided by the job. But it's also not usually used in bribery cases.
"There are so many exceptions," said Lori Kumpuris, deputy prosecutor coordinator at the Arkansas Prosecutor Coordinator's Office. Food, for example, is excluded by the law. At worst, a violation of 21-8-801 earns a written warning with a $2,000 fine, and that only after a second offense.
The dearth of charges filed under the state's abuse of public office statute doesn't mean no abuses happen, but they are more likely to be prosecuted as federal crimes than as state crimes. Hudson Hallum, a Democrat from Marion, recently resigned from the Arkansas House of Representatives after pleading guilty to a federal charge that included allegations that he helped bribe absentee voters in order to get elected.
Last year the owner of an Illinois company pleaded guilty to federal charges of bribing school officials in Louisiana and Arkansas in order to win contracts, but the specific school officials were not identified in court.
In perhaps the most infamous case, from more than a decade ago, Tyson Foods spokesman Archie Schaffer III was convicted in federal court of attempting to influence Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy with expensive gifts. Schaffer was eventually pardoned by President Bill Clinton, and the U.S. Court of Appeals vacated his felony conviction.
The closest thing to a state bribery charge currently pending in the state is the case against former University of Central Arkansas President Allen Meadors.
Institutional food service provider Aramark offered $700,000 to renovate the house provided to Meadors on the UCA campus in Conway provided Aramark's contract with the school was renewed without competitive bids. Meadors accepted the offer but later resigned from the university when the deal became public.
Cody Hiland, prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial District (Faulkner County) charged Meadors, but not with abuse of public trust, although he initially considered that statute.
"We ended up charging Meadors with a misdemeanor and tampering with public records," Hiland said. "It had nothing to do with an exchange of money."
In cases like this, Hiland said, often the charges are technical - they may not fully represent the issue at hand, but they're made to make sure the perpetrator is pinned with something.
"Honestly, those kind of issues, when you have a bad guy, you find a technical violation, you string them up and get them out of office or off the streets," he said.
And that may be what happened in Oklahoma: Superintendent Sisney has been in trouble involving the Broken Arrow district for years (see sidebar), and Windstream may be ensnared in a broad net laid for him.
According to the indictments against Windstream and Sisney, the Broken Arrow School Board had an express policy "absolutely prohibiting acceptance by School District personnel of gratuities from the School District's vendors and serving providers." But it also has a state statute (see sidebar) that prohibits giving any public official or employee anything of value to influence any decision or action.
Receiving a bribe, as is specifically forbidden under Oklahoma law, requires a solicitor - and that, according to the indictment, was Windstream. The tickets to the tournament were allegedly given "with the intention of favorably influencing the aforesaid James David Sisney's judgment in reference to recommending or approving the School District continuing to do business with Windstream Corporation in the future ..."
Windstream faces a penalty of up to $3,000 for the bribery charge and $25,000 for conspiracy against the state. It has filed a response to the indictment denying any wrongdoing.
"We have always taken great pride in serving our customers with integrity," EVP and General Counsel John Fletcher said in a press release. "We have cooperated fully in the investigation and will vigorously contest the charges."
The company has declined to comment on the case beyond that original response.