Brandon Barber Pleads Guilty to 3 Counts in Bank Fraud Case

Former northwest Arkansas developer Brandon Barber entered guilty pleas to three counts Wednesday in federal court in Fort Smith, changing previously entered not-guilty pleas in a pair of federal indictments pending against him.

Barber, 37, had faced 27 counts in schemes that provided false documents and information about loans and real estate to banks including Legacy National Bank of Springdale and Metropolitan National Bank of Little Rock. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering.

The court dismissed the remaining 24 counts.

The maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit bank fraud is 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The maximum penalty for money laundering is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Barber, wearing an orange and white jail jumpsuit, appeared in court with his attorneys, W. Asa Hutchinson III and Asa Hutchinson of the Asa Hutchinson Law Group in Rogers. Asa Hutchinson III said Barber's sentencing would take place after two other trials involving co-defendents charged on the same indictments.

Barber has been in the Washington County jail for more than a month after his bond was revoked for repeatedly violating the terms of his release. He said little during the hearing. He told U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes that he is working on getting a master's degree. 

Once the case reaches the sentencing phase, Holmes can consider a number of factors, including sentencing guidelines and a defendant’s willingness to testify against others involved in the case. Barber's plea agreement requires him to cooperate with all investigations and to testify as requested by the government.

Although the number of charges against him was reduced from 27 to three, when it comes time for sentencing, "relevant conduct" - which includes the dismissed charges - can be considered. It isn't clear from the plea agreement just how much Barber's victims lost, which may be a factor in his sentence.

More: Read the plea agreement (PDF).

Arkansas Business reported Monday that a change of plea was scheduled. On Wednesday, Asa Hutchinson III said his client has "accepted responsibility and he's remorseful."

"Brandon came to the conclusion on his own, voluntarily, that the right thing to do is take responsibility and plead guilty," Asa Hutchinson III said. "... Nothing dictated the timing other than natural development of Brandon's thought process." 

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Western District U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge said prosecuting crimes that grew out of the financial boom in northwest Arkansas was a priority for his office.

"We’re dedicated, as this case shows, to investigating and prosecuting fraudulent conduct, those who would swindle people out of money and others who would perpetuate white-collar crimes," he said. "… Financial crimes take a real toll on our society and certainly have in northwest Arkansas, the rest of the district and the state. That’s why we’re focused on them. This case shows we intend to maintain that focus."

Eldridge said Barber's plea was a good deal for the government.

"Mr. Barber has been convicted of three counts and the totality of his conduct will be able to be considered by the court at sentencing," he said. "We’re pleased with that. We’ll continue to move on with the case."

Brandon Rains

A co-defendant in one of Barber's indictments, Brandon Rains, was also scheduled to change his previous not-guilty plea during a 3:30 p.m. hearing Wednesday. But that hearing was canceled on Wednesday, and Rains' jury trial was reset for Oct. 21. In that trial, Barber was to be tried with Rains, Jeff Whorton and David Fisher on charges of bank fraud and money laundering.  

Rains' attorney, Blake Hendrix of Little Rock, said he was not able to make a comment on the canceled plea hearing. He said he now anticipates that his client will go to trial.

Another trial had been set for Barber on Sept. 16 -- the case that alleged money laundering and bankruptcy fraud by Barber and two co-defendants, his former attorney K. Vaughn Knight and a business associate, James Van Doren. 

Van Doren's request to be tried separately was denied, and he has filed a civil lawsuit accusing Barber and Knight of doctoring real estate closing statements to make it appear Van Doren and his company received $688,937 that really went to Barber and Knight. Barber's plea agreement says Van Doren received $152,735 while the remainder was used by Barber.