Federal prosecutors scored point after point Friday, but U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes ultimately sentenced former State Treasurer Martha Shoffner to 30 months in federal prison — less than half the time that the U.S. Attorney's office sought for accepting $42,000 in bribes.
Holmes, agreeing with defense attorney Chuck Banks that the case was "unique," gave the prosecution almost everything it asked for in calculating the sentencing guidelines for the 14 felony counts she was convicted of in March 2014:
- Holmes agreed with prosecutors that the seven payments of $6,000 each that Shoffner received from bond broker Steele Stephens — the last one as part of an FBI sting — were separate bribes, not installment payments on a single bribe, as Banks argued.
- Holmes agreed that, by backing out of her original agreement to plead guilty, Shoffner lost her chance to get a lighter sentence for accepting responsibility for her crime.
- Holmes also agreed that the size of the crime — the "benefit" received — should be calculated based on how much Stephens received in commission on the state business she steered to him rather than on the $36,000 she pocketed before the sting.
But the judge rejected the prosecution's original argument that the guideline be based on the total of $1.7 million in commissions that Stephens received during the three-year "bribe period" beginning in mid-2010, a figure that would have resulted in a sentencing range of between 15 and 19 years.
Stephens had been doing business with the treasurer's office before he started giving money to Shoffner, and Holmes said it would be an "error" to assume that he would have received no more commissions without paying bribes.
Instead, Holmes accepted the prosecution's alternate estimate of $939,889 — which was the difference between what Stephens received in commissions and the commissions he would have earned if he had received only as many bond orders as the second most active broker doing business with Shoffner's office.
But when it came time to sentence her, Holmes departed dramatically from the guideline range of 151-188 months and even from the range of 63-78 months that Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White suggested would be "fairer and more appropriate." (That would have been the range if Holmes had accepted $36,000 as the size of the benefit.)
Holmes said he had "wrestled" with crafting an appropriate sentence ever since Shoffner's conviction.
A bank teller with no criminal record who embezzled $36,000 might well be sentenced to probation without prison time, he said, but he would undoubtedly give a lengthy prison sentence even to a first-time offender who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the end, he sentenced the 71-year-old to 30 months in federal prison and rejected Banks' request that the sentence be split between prison and a halfway house.
"I don't think I would be doing her any favor" by sending her to the halfway house, the judge said.
Instead, he will recommend that she be incarcerated at the Carswell Federal Correctional Institute near Fort Worth, Texas, which has extensive medical facilities that the City of Faith halfway house in Little Rock does not.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer, speaking on the steps of the federal courthouse after the hearing, said he was satisfied with the sentence imposed.
And he said his office had never actually sought the maximum sentence suggested under the guidelines, but did seek to have the guideline range calculated properly as a starting place for the judge's decision.
Holmes seemed to catch prosecutor White off-guard when asked, essentially, why a state official's crime in which only the state of Arkansas was a victim was prosecuted in federal court rather than in state court.
Holmes said he had been "bothered" by how the Shoffner case "relates to federalism."
"If I didn't think we had jurisdiction (in federal court), we wouldn't be here. This case would have been gone," Holmes said.
Still, he said, "I can tell you it's been on my mind."
Holmes even asked White whether it might be appropriate to consider the punishment contemplated by state laws against abuse of office when crafting a sentence for Shoffner. White said he would object to that.
Holmes threw out the idea of sentencing Shoffner to probation and challenging state authorities to prosecute her, then concluded, "But that won't do her any good."
Talking to reporters afterward, U.S. Attorney Thyer said prosecutors in his office "have those discussions on a daily basis." But he said public corruption cases "fit very nicely in federal court" because "all of the politics are taken out of the case."