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Say Hooray For Our Side (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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I wanted to be in Fayetteville on Wednesday for the sentencing of former state Sen. Jon Woods the way other Arkansans want to be in Fayetteville on game day. If there was a radio call-in show for federal court spectators, I’d be on a first-name basis with the screener.

I never want anyone to be a crook, you know, but nothing pleases me more than seeing crooks get caught and punished. This is especially true when the crooks are corrupt “public servants,” since their victims aren’t just faceless banks or gullible investors. Public corruption chips away at the faith we must have in order for our system of self-rule to function. Everything we need and want government to do is made harder by the nagging feeling that taxpayers are being taken advantage of by the people we have trusted with the awesome power of taxation.

Woods was a ringleader and selfish beneficiary of the biggest public corruption scandal in Arkansas in almost 20 years. I really wanted to be there for the kickoff of the Punishment Bowl.

Alas, the short holiday week forced me to stick to my knitting in Little Rock, impatiently waiting for word from our northwest Arkansas editor, Marty Cook, who was covering the action in U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks’ courtroom the way he used to cover sports.

I’ve been in Brooks’ court before. I watched him methodically sentence Jim Bolt, the single most disturbing white-collar criminal I’ve covered at Arkansas Business, so I knew he wasn’t afraid to hit hard. But when a text came from Marty — 220 months — I questioned whether that might be a typo. I had never seen a sentence that long in a white-collar case in the federal system, where “truth in sentencing” means he’ll likely serve at least 15 years.

I’m writing this a day later, and I still don’t know how I feel about it — not that my opinion matters any more than some armchair yahoo who pontificates on “Drivetime Sports.”

Judge Brooks heard all the testimony and saw all the evidence presented at Woods’ trial, including the fact that he enticed a fellow legislator, former Rep. Micah Neal, into the criminal conspiracy. (Neal, who pleaded guilty, will be sentenced Thursday.)

Brooks also saw something few have: a presentence investigation report compiled, as is routine, by federal probation officers. These reports give judges additional information about a defendant that can be used during sentencing.

From testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, we know that Woods’ report included the fact that he sponsored legislation that delivered $1 million in state money to the nonprofit mental health provider whose executive/lobbyist Rusty Cranford was paying Woods bribes. This was part of Cranford’s guilty plea in a separate but related federal case in Missouri, not a crime Woods was convicted of, but Brooks refused the defense request to ignore that little distraction.

We also know that the totality of what Brooks learned about Woods over the course of this case provided him with “a great insight into the depravity of [Woods’] heart” and to conclude that Woods had developed “serious criminal thinking issues” that made the judge fear that “when you’re released, you’ll be scheming again.”

All of that supports a very long sentence, and 18 years is not the 33 years that federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed.

On the other hand, 18 years is more than Jeffrey Skilling’s 14-year sentence for defrauding Enron investors and employees. It’s a lot more than the 10 years that Kevin Lewis drew for perpetrating the biggest fraud — some $50 million — ever prosecuted in Arkansas. Mike Maggio, the former judge in Faulkner County who admitted that he reduced a jury’s verdict against a nursing home because the nursing home’s owner gave him a campaign contribution, also got 10 years.

Woods’ sentence dwarfs the seven years that the late Gene Cauley got from a federal judge in New York for stealing more than $9 million from a client trust fund, and Nick Wilson, mastermind of the last great corruption scandal in our state Legislature, got a sentence of only 70 months.

Now, all of the above did something Woods didn’t do: They pleaded guilty and took responsibility for their crimes (although Maggio did try to take back his plea). And defendants who do that certainly deserve some consideration at sentencing time. Still, Martha Shoffner — after two failed attempts to plead guilty — was convicted by a jury of accepting bribes while serving as state treasurer. She got 30 months.

Woods plans to appeal the sentence, just as he is appealing his conviction. The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming, but I don’t need for him to serve the better part of two decades for me to feel like my team won.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
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