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Ouachita County judge pleads innocent

By Gavin Lesnick

This article was originally published January 18, 2013 at 10:40 a.m. Updated January 18, 2013 at 11:21 a.m.

file-ouachita-county-judge-james-hesterly-is-escorted-from-the-federal-courthouse-in-el-dorado-after-a-jan-18-hearing

FILE - Ouachita County Judge James Hesterly is escorted from the federal courthouse in El Dorado after a Jan. 18 hearing.

— 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.

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 total comments

NONSHEEPLE says... January 18, 2013 at 11:22 a.m.

fraud... typical at all levels. Ouachita county has been known for being dirty from back before I lived there as a kid.

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Bart says... January 18, 2013 at 11:33 a.m.

Why can the headline editors never learn? There is no such plea as INNOCENT in American courts. The correct plea is NOT GUILTY which merely places the burden of proving guilt on the Prosecutor. It is not the same as innocent.
Another pet peeve is the title JUDGE for the administrative head of county government. He/she has no judicial duties. In most states this official is the Chair of the County Commission; or, Chair of the Board of Supervisors. The headline of this article makes it appear that some judicial judge has been arrested and charged rather than a polititian!

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HOTRODARK says... January 18, 2013 at 12:03 p.m.

Great news. it is about time to clean up OUACHITA COUNTY.

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TheBatt says... January 18, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.

Is his crime not enhanced by his position? County Judge accepting a bribe? Of course, much like many other crimes - the chance that this is the only time this judge has acted with impropriety are slim.

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whodwho71720 says... January 19, 2013 at 4:54 a.m.

Little Harry as he is called has done extensive cleanup out side the state for years. The local gossip has always been that he makes his money by falsifying load count or tonnage hauled The feds should investigate him from the inception date of his business to present.Also he employs a large number of Mexicans of which I suspect some are not are here legally.

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