Federal Judge Timothy Brooks today refused to dismiss charges against former Republican Sen. Jon Woods and other defendants in a case alleging a kickback scheme using public money.
In his order, the judge revealed that an FBI investigation is underway of an FBI agent’s handling of potential evidence in the case — actions that led to the motion to dismiss. He said he believed the agent had lied about his reasons for wiping a computer hard drive (he had said it was merely to remove video games and some personal medical records.)
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Doug Thompson writes about today’s developments for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Woods is charged along with Ecclesia College President Oren Paris and a friend, Randell Shelton, in scheming to profit from money directed out of state surplus to Ecclesia, among others. Former Republican Rep. Micah Neal has already pleaded guilty in the case. Neal turned over some tapes he’d made on his own accord with others to the FBI. When defense lawyers sought those tapes, not all of the calls he’d recorded were originally produced. It developed that FBI agent Robert Cessario had caused some material he’d received from Neal to be erased from his FBI computer. He said he’d wiped the memory. All the files were available on a computer of Neal’s defense attorney.
Cessaro’s actions are not what the pending case is about, Brooks said. “The grand jury has issued an indictment against these defendants. The public has an interest in seeing that indictment prosecuted, just as the defendants have an interest in holding the government to its burden of proof at trial.”
He also commented:
“There may be readers of this opinion who feel that this court, by declining to dismiss the indictment, is somehow allowing Agent Cessario — and by extension, the government — to ‘get away with’ bad conduct. The court would emphasize here that it does not condone Agent Cessario’s actions; it finds them reprehensible. But the public does not forfeit it’s interest in seeing crime prosecuted simply because one government agent happened to engage in bad conduct along the way.”
Brooks also refused a motion to get off the case, though he had once represented Cessario and once practiced law with one of Woods’ former defense attorneys.
Here’s Brooks’ 46-page opinion keeping the case alive. There’s a lengthy discussion there of the handling of information on the FBI laptop for those following the case closely. The judge concluded there was no evidence that any information material to the charges or defense was lost in the handling of the computer. But he said the FBI agent had committed a constitutional violation and, as a result, the government may not introduce any of Neal’s recordings in evidence and it may not call
Among the many motions, the judge dismissed was a claim by Shelton that the government had just gone after Republicans and had ignored Woods’ dealings with an unnamed Democrat The judge said Shelton’s argument was “hard to fathom.”
Here, too, is the separate 26-page order in which Brooks declined to step down from the case.