Paul Bookout, the former Democratic senator from Jonesboro who resigned his seat after an Ethics Commission finding that he’d used campaign money for personal expenses, entered a negotiated plea in federal court today to a felony mail fraud count for using interstate communications in the scheme.
He won’t be sentenced until a report by the federal probation office. The U.S. attorney’s office, as part of the agreement will not make a sentencing recommendation, for or against an enhanced sentence. Under the agreement he’ll pay about $150,158, though it’s not sure who’ll get the money, the state or contributors. The crime could carry a sentence up to 20 years. Judge Brian Miller noted he could depart from guidelines, in either direction. The amount he owes is the amount from two campaign cycles studied by prosecutors within the three-year period under which charges could be filed. But he spent far more over the years in a similar manner.
Bookout was released on his own recognizance until sentencing.
He said nothing in court except acknowledging Judge Brian Miller’s questions and speaking the word “guilty.” His attorney, Bill Stanley, said a statement would be issued later. “Paul’s plea today indicates his acceptance and responsibility,” he said. Prosecutors said they’d have a statement later.
UPDATE: Bookout’s prepared statement:
I want to sincerely apologize to my family, my former constituents and the people of Arkansas. I have cooperated with both State and Federal prosecutors throughout this process. My plea today reflects my acceptance of responsibility. I plan to work with all of my ability to make this right with my family, my former constituents and my community.
The lack of a plan to recommend an enhanced sentence will be analyzed carefully by many who’ve been watching this case. It’s been known for some time that Bookout was being investigated by federal authorities. A number of other elected officials were watching nervously for the prospect that he might, in return for information about others, land a more favorable deal.
The lack of evidence of that doesn’t necessarily mean others face no further reviews. Bookout used campaign surpluses for years for personal reasons. The practice was not believed to be isolated. Indeed, politicians have long insisted that “entertainment” expenses such as Bookout reported without itemization could be viewed as politics-enhancing events, depending on who was entertained. Mark Darr resigned as lieutenant governor, for example, after the Ethics Commission found he, too, had spent campaign money for prohibited personal purposes. If he’s facing further prosecutorial review, it hasn’t been announced.
Bookout’s spending was egregious, however, and went far beyond entertainment. Over six campaigns, he spent more than $267,000 on unitemized expenses despite having no opposition. In four formal findings of ethics violations, the Ethics Commission found in a review of some of the campaigns about $63,000 in spending, but only $13,000 in legitimate campaign expenses.
In May, Bookout filed a batch of corrected campaign reports that listed in detail his illegal spending. He also repaid some contributors a part of their contributions.
Bookout bought a home entertainment system, paid club dues, paid for tanning bed time, bought clothes for his wife and daughter, bought booze and otherwise lived tax-free off an average of some $40,000 a year in expenses paid by campaign contributors. He nominally worked as a marketing representative for a Jonesboro hospital, a job he lost after the scandal broke.
State ethics violations can be prosecuted, but only as misdemeanors. The special prosecutor appointed after the Ethics Commission’s civil findings, Jack McQuary, was deputized as a federal prosecutor for purposes of this case.
The U.S. attorney’s news release follows:
Patrick C. Harris, Attorney for the United States, Acting Under Authority Conferred by 28 U.S.C. §515, Jack McQuary, Special Prosecutor for the State of Arkansas and Special Assistant United States Attorney, David T. Resch, Special Agent in Charge of the Little Rock Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Colonel William J. Bryant, Director of the Arkansas State Police, announced today that former Arkansas State Senator Paul J. Bookout, age 52, of Jonesboro, Arkansas waived indictment and entered a plea of guilty to a felony information charging him with one count of mail fraud related to a scheme in which Bookout converted contributions for his 2010 and 2012 election campaigns to his personal use and profit. The waiver and plea hearing took place today in Little Rock before Chief District Judge Brian S. Miller.
“In a betrayal of his oath of office and his duty to the citizens of Arkansas, Mr. Bookout violated the integrity of our government and disrespected those he served by selfishly and brazenly spending campaign funds for his personal use,” stated David Shepard, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Little Rock FBI, “The FBI will continue to work together with the United States Attorney’s Office and the Arkansas State Police to ensure that all those who participate in political corruption will be held accountable for their actions.
“I appreciate the cooperation of the United States Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and the Arkansas State Police, who assisted in this case in order to effectively bring a resolution to both the State and Federal violations committed by Mr. Bookout,” stated Special Prosecutor Jack McQuary. “State prosecutors will continue to work with our federal counterparts to bring justice to the citizens of the State of Arkansas with regard to public corruption.”Page
In 2006, Bookout was elected to the Arkansas State Senate, representing Arkansas Senate District 14. In 2011 and 2012, Bookout served as President Pro Tempore of the Arkansas State Senate. He resigned in August 2013. According to the Information filed today, Bookout deposited campaign contributions for his 2010 and 2012 elections into two bank accounts. Between May 2009 and December 2012, campaign donations totaling $126,500 were deposited into one of those accounts. Between March 2012 and July 2013, campaign donations totaling $62,750 were deposited into the second account. The Information alleges that between May 2009 and July 2013, Bookout unlawfully made payments totaling $150,048.12 from those accounts for personal items
and expenses, including clothing for Bookout and family members, a sound system installed in Bookout’s home, golf clubs, country club pro shop expenses, sporting goods, liquor, household furnishing, tanning sessions, manicures, and travel expenses unrelated to his re-election campaigns.
During his 2010 and 2012 re-election campaigns, Bookout was required to file monthly Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Reports (“CCE reports”) with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office in Little Rock to evidence compliance with campaign finance disclosure laws and provide a public record of all contributions and expenditures related to his campaigns. According to the Information, the monthly CCE reports prepared, signed, and filed by Bookout in 2010 and 2012 falsely claimed that the unlawful payments made from his campaign accounts were legitimate campaign related expenses. Additionally, the Information alleges that in filing false CCE reports, Bookout represented to the Secretary of State’s Office, the public, and his contributors that all of
the claimed expenditures were lawful and related to his campaigns, when in fact they were not.
The mail fraud count charged relates to Bookout’s mailing of a fraudulent CCE report to the Secretary of State’s Office on about December 28, 2012.
The statutory penalty for mail fraud is not more than twenty (20) years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
The investigation was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Arkansas State Police. This case was prosecuted in the Eastern District of Arkansas by Assistant United States Attorney Patricia S. Harris and Special Assistant United States Attorney and Special Prosecutor for the State of Arkansas Jack McQuary.