Testimony Begins In Trial Of Former Treasurer Martha Shoffner

Mar 6, 2014

File photo of Shoffner and attorney Chuck Banks leaving a court hearing in June 2013.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The first witnesses in the bribery and extortion trial of former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner detailed Thursday how the office would make decisions about the state’s investments and how one broker came to get a disproportionate share of that business.

Shoffner is accused of taking $36,000 from bond broker Steele Stephens, in exchange for steering state business his way.

Chief Deputy Treasurer Debbie Rogers, who has worked in the office nearly 30 years, and Chief Investment Officer Autumn Sanson, who has worked there 14 years, testified that in the past, the treasurer’s office worked to spread investments evenly through different brokers. But Sanson said that changed when Shoffner was in the office.

“At times she’d say ‘I don’t want you to call so and so because he didn’t give to my reelection campaign,” Sanson said.

She also testified that Shoffner introduced her to Stephens and was told to do more business with his firm, which included his father Steve Stephens.

“I was instructed to do so. She trusted that they had been good to her and said we could justify it.”

Sanson also testified that Shoffner became angry when one deal was done through another broker.

“She would slam her fist on the desk and saying ‘I’m the goddamn state treasurer and I’ll decide which brokers we’ll use,” Sanson said.

Deputy Treasurer Debbie Rogers told the jury that Shoffner also frequently brought up the fact that many in the office were paid much more than the $54,000 Shoffner earned as an elected official, especially when merit raises were being discussed.  She said Shoffner openly talked about not having enough money to cover her expenses.

While cross examining Rogers, defense attorney Chuck Banks said that Shoffner was "not as qualified, didn't have the training, experience or education," as Rogers and "relied on you to answer questions and guide the office" as her second in command.

There was also testimony about cash donations by Steele Stevens at campaign events.

Karla Shepard, who was chief deputy in the Shoffner's office, said that at a campaign kickoff party on Sept. 24, 2009, Stephens handed her an envelope with $4,000 to cover the expense of the event.  At an election night watch party on Nov. 2, 2010, he also gave another envelope with $4,000 to cover the cost.  But Shepard testified that at the end of the night the expense was paid for with a check from the campaign and that the cash donation never showed up in an expense report.

Attorney Banks suggested Shepard was retaliating against Shoffner because she was eventually terminated.

"You were dismissed and you said you were gonna get her?"

"I did not," Shepard responded.

Banks also noted in phone records that after her employment had ended, Shepard regularly called employees still working in the office, suggesting there was a conspiracy against Shoffner by disgruntled current and former staffers.

Another employee also said Shoffner was prone to angry outbursts in the office.  Cord Rapert had volunteered in Shoffner's campaigns for auditor and later treasurer and started working as an assistant in her office in 2008.  But he said his impression of her changed over the years and she no longer seemed like the person he helped get elected.

"I was treated horribly, spoken to horribly.  She would yell and scream, thrown things, hit the table," Cord said.

When he submitted a resignation letter, Rapert said she crumpled it up, threw it in his face and told him to leave immediately.

Thursday was the second day of the trial, with U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes instructing the jury to be prepared for it to last through the end of next week.

In opening statements Wednesday, Shoffner attorney Chuck Banks suggested that his client only made a mistake in failing to report the money from Steele Stephens as a donation and should have just been cited for an ethics violation.

On Thursday, with the jury out of the room, prosecutors asked the judge to block Banks from making that argument again for the rest of the trial. Holmes did not rule immediately on the motion but told Banks to approach the bench if he intended to raise the subject again.

The trial will resume Friday at 9 a.m.