A sentencing hearing is to begin Wednesday at 9 a.m. for former Arkansas state Senator Jon Woods. He and several others have been convicted or pleaded guilty as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. Woods' co-defendant Randell Shelton Jr. will be sentenced Thursday, while their accomplices are scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Doug Thompson, a reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, covered Woods' trial from start to finish and spoke with KUAR about Woods' case.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks will decide the sentence for Woods at the federal courthouse in Fayetteville. Witnesses could be called to speak on behalf of Woods.
Regardless of what sentence Brooks imposes, Woods is expected to appeal his conviction. Defense attorneys have agrued from the beginning of the trial that prosecutors were withholding evidence. According to recently unsealed court documents, Thompson reports that evidence was destroyed when an FBI agent cleaned a computer's hard drive.
Woods and Neal were convicted of accepting kickbacks in exchange for steering state grants to Ecclesia College in Springdale. The school's former president, Oren Paris III, hired Shelton as a consultant to pass money to Woods and former state Rep. Micah Neal.
According to Thompson's report:
The centerpiece of their appeals, defense attorneys say, will be the decision of FBI investigator Robert Cessario to wipe the hard drive of an FBI laptop computer that was used to gather evidence. Cessario's explanation that he was trying to protect his private medical records was rejected by the court, and the matter was referred to the Inspector General of the FBI for further investigation. No result of that investigation has been made public to date.
The events leading up to the laptop wipe began with members of the defense team insisting that they were not getting all the records they were entitled to and the government assuring them they were, the unsealed documents show. Secret recordings made by Neal became the key to the dispute.
A text from Neal's attorney, Shane Wilkinson of Bentonville, mentioned recordings by Neal of conversations that were not turned over to the defense until defense attorneys discovered them during Woods' trial.
In all, Neal made at least 119 audio files that he downloaded onto a computer at Wilkinson's office. Further investigation after defense attorneys made an issue of possible missing files found 80 of them had not been shared with the defense. The gap was discovered days before the trial was originally set to begin in December, resulting in a delay until April.
Cessario was ordered Dec. 4 in an email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Jennen to turn over the laptop. Cessario had the hard drive professionally erased at a computer shop in Bentonville that same day, then erased it again himself before turning it in on Dec. 7, he testified in a pretrial hearing Jan. 25.
Read Thompson's full report for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.