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Jury selection, opening arguments mark first day of Shoffner trial

By Staff and wire reports

This article was originally published March 5, 2014 at 7:12 a.m. Updated March 5, 2014 at 6:13 p.m.

6:15 p.m. UPDATE

The first day of the bribery and extortion trial of former state treasurer Martha Shoffner concluded Wednesday afternoon with opening statements from the defense and prosecution.

In her remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jana Harris said that Shoffner purportedly was given six payments by Steele Stephens, a Newport-based broker who was awarded millions of dollars in bonds partly because of Shoffner’s relationship with Stephens and his family.

Stephens was a bond broker at the Russellville-based St. Bernard Financial Services.

Harris also told jurors they could anticipate hearing from witnesses that Shoffner had complained to her co-workers "about not having enough money.”

Shoffner’s attorney, Charles “Chuck” Banks, told the jurors that the former state treasurer was attacked and taken advantage of due to her lack of knowledge about bond activity.

Banks called the charges “embellished,” including the detail about some of the money purportedly being delivered in pie boxes. He added that despite the money Shoffner received, the state never took a loss as a result.

“The bonds were profitable,” Banks said. “The public was well-served.”

The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.

3:15 P.M. UPDATE:

LITTLE ROCK — Jury selection in the extortion and bribery trial of former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner began Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Little Rock with a pool of prospective jurors filling Judge J. Leon Holmes’ courtroom for the proceedings.

While being questioned by Holmes, several jurors excused themselves from the immediate pool of 32 jurors for various reasons, including medical or family reasons, as well as possible bias from gathering information from what they’ve heard in the news media.

Jury selection is expected to continue throughout Wednesday afternoon, and lawyers for both the prosecution and defense are expected to present their opening statements when a final group of jurors is selected.

EARLIER:

After a 2½-day delay because of icy weather, jury selection is set to begin in the corruption trial of former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner.

Shoffner and attorneys from both sides gathered for a pretrial hearing late Wednesday morning before the 1 p.m. start of jury selection.

At the hearing, defense attorney Chuck Banks requested any documents prosecutors had detailing immunity from prosecution given to broker Steele Stephens, who is expected to testify against Shoffner.

Prosecutors said no such document existed, and Banks then requested prosecutors turn over field notes detailing interviews with Stephens where the topic of immunity might have come up.

U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes said he would review the documents and determine whether they should be turned over.

Shoffner faces a 14-count extortion and bribery indictment on accusations she accepted $36,000 in payments from a bond broker, to whom Shoffner is accused of steering state business. Shoffner also faces 10 fraud charges over purported campaign misspending, for which she'll be tried separately.

Shoffner was arrested last year after the bond broker wore a listening device as he delivered $6,000 in a pie box to Shoffner.

Shoffner was to have pleaded guilty last year, but she changed her mind.

The trial is expected to go through at least the middle of next week.

Read tomorrow's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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