EL DORADO The Ouachita County judge and another man indicted in a plot to award a disaster-relief contract in exchange for a campaign contribution have both entered innocent pleas.
Ouachita County Judge James Michael Hesterly, 47, and Harry Clemons Jr., 39, of Bearden were arraigned Friday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant.
Federal authorities allege that Hesterly awarded Clemons a contract to clean up debris in Ouachita County left by a pair of 2009 tornadoes in exchange for the contribution, which is reported to have been more than $5,000.
Clemons is the owner of Clemons Construction in Bearden, and Hesterly has been a county judge for 10 years.
Clemons was allowed to remain free pending a March 13 trial, but Hesterly was ordered detained at least until a bond hearing Tuesday in Hot Springs.
An assistant U.S. attorney said during the hearing that prosecutors wanted Hesterly detained because he made threats against witnesses and the FBI agent investigating the case. U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas Conner Eldridge said as he left the courthouse that he couldn't divulge further information about the purported threats or the case before the Tuesday hearing.
Bryant also set a March 13 trial date for Hesterly, though the initial dates set are often delayed.
Hesterly, wearing khaki pants, a plaid shirt and with his ankles shackled, spoke during the hearing, but only to answer the judge's questions and to say he was pleading "not guilty." His attorney, Jamie Pratt, said during the heating that his "client denies the allegations." He declined comment afterward.
According to a federal indictment, Hesterly and Clemons rigged a "corrupt bidding process" in which Clemons had friends submit inflated bids, making his low bid seem legitimate. Arkansas law requires a competitive bidding process in which a contract is awarded to the lowest responsible bidder after being advertised for 10 days.
Clemons Construction was ultimately paid nearly $70,000 for the work, money that largely came from post-disaster Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.
Both men face charges of conspiracy the defraud a government agency and bribery, punishable by up to five years and 10 years in prison, respectively. Each also carries a fine of up to $250,000.
Clemons was allowed to remain free, but Bryant ordered him not to have any contact with witnesses in the case.