A federal judge on Monday rejected Martha Shoffner’s plea of guilty to a single count of mail fraud because the former state treasurer could not admit that she raised campaign funds with the intention of spending the money on personal expenses.
It’s the second time Shoffner’s attempt to plead guilty to a federal crime fell apart. And, as before, she will now make her case to a jury.
Her trial on 10 counts of mail fraud — nine of which would have been dismissed if her plea deal had gone through — is scheduled to start Feb. 2.
The trial was originally set for Dec. 1, however, Shoffner’s lawyer, Chuck Banks, asked U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes for a “small continuance” on the trial, which Holmes said he would deny unless another date in the near future could be settled on.
A court order, issued Monday afternoon after the morning’s proceedings, said the two sides agreed to the February date.
Shoffner, 70, readily admitted to Holmes that in November 2010 she used about $9,800 from an IberiaBank campaign account to pay for personal expenses charged on a Wells Fargo credit card — clothing and cosmetics, according to federal prosecutors.
“I wrote the check and mailed it,” Shoffner said under oath. “I don’t know exactly what [was charged], but it was personal.”
But when Holmes asked her to admit that she raised the campaign funds with the specific intent to defraud contributors, Shoffner balked. Banks asked for a 10-minute recess that instead extended for about 45 minutes.
Upon returning to the lectern in front of the judge, Shoffner told the judge, “I never raised the money to use personally.”
Holmes then said he could not accept her plea, as the intent to defraud was an element of the crime to which she had intended to plead guilty.
The question of when her criminal intent began — at the point of soliciting the campaign funds or at the point of using them inappropriately — seemed to come as a surprise to the defense. But Banks said he would defer to the judge’s interpretation of the law.
“He’s protecting the presumption of innocence, and I agree with him,” Banks said.
He said he would never allow any client to admit to conduct that he or she denied doing.
Shoffner, who sobbed at points in the hearing, said she was ready to get the charges behind her. The recent election season, she said, had been “very, very trying on my nerves.”
In May 2013, Shoffner stood before Judge Holmes with the intention of pleading guilty to a single count of extortion after being recorded accepting a $6,000 payment from former bond broker Steele Stephens. But she withdrew from that guilty plea after being unable to tell Holmes that she demanded the payments.
She was ultimately convicted by a jury of 14 counts of bribery and extortion, but sentencing on those counts had been delayed since the March trial while federal prosecutors pursued the 10 mail fraud charges.