Federal prosecutors on Friday paid $12,702 in sanctions ordered over a year ago by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen rather than face a court-ordered $300-a-day fine.
Griffen imposed the fine in a contempt-of-court finding Friday against U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer and his office only to withdraw it later the same day when the sanctions were paid.
Griffen and Thyer have been at odds for about 20 months over the U.S.
attorney’s office’s intervention in a 2011 case in Griffen’s court in which Garret Sorensen of North Little Rock, his wife and sister-in law were being sued by Sorensen’s former employer.
Griffen sanctioned the prosecutors after ruling they had conducted themselves improperly in the civil litigation, which was related to the federal prosecution of Sorensen. The sanctions are to reimburse the Sorensen family’s attorneys’ fees. The fine would also have gone to the Sorensens.
Prosecutors, who deny any wrongdoing, argued in court filings that they could not pay those sanctions without giving up their right to appeal them, according to pleadings by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shannon Smith on Thyer’s behalf. Arkansas case law treats payment of judgment as a waiver of appeal, the prosecutors stated.
With federal prosecutors handing out checks Friday, Griffen agreed to order that the payments not be considered a waiver of appeal.
He said he would formally dismiss the case on Monday. Prosecutors say they’ve been waiting for that dismissal because it’s required for them to appeal the sanctions.
In September 2012, the judge ordered Thyer and two of his assistants to pay a portion of the Sorensen family’s legal fees after ruling that the prosecutors had acted improperly and underhandedly by involving themselves in the lawsuit. A federal judge has also chastised the prosecutors over their involvement in the civil suit.
Sorensen had been USA Drug’s vice president of advertising until company officials learned that Sorensen had been over billing the Pine Bluff-based drugstore chain for direct-mail advertising services through a company he had created, Multi-Media Management. The company also billed USA Drug for work it did not perform.
The scheme eventually led to Sorensen’s conviction on federal counts of money laundering and mail fraud, for which he is serving a 33-month prison sentence. He has also been ordered to pay $296,991 in reimbursement.
But before the federal criminal case had been resolved, USA Drug’s owners sued him and his family in state court in 2011, claiming that the Sorensens were responsible for company losses of more than $525,000.
Concerned that Garret Sorensen was attempting to use the discovery process - the procedure in civil and criminal cases that requires the sides to exchange evidence ahead of trial - to try to get insight into the the criminal case, the prosecutors got permission from Griffen to join the lawsuit.
But when Griffen refused their request to suspend discovery, the prosecutors moved the case to federal court, which drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, who decried their actions as “shenanigans” without any legal authority. He fined prosecutors $4,000 but eventually withdrew the sanctions, saying he was satisfied by Thyer’s promise not to do it again.
Walgreen Co. bought USA Drug last year.
Sorensen’s wife, Katherine, and sister-in-law Shannon Walters had been federally indicted with Garret Sorensen, but prosecutors dropped the charges against the women in exchange for Garret Sorensen’s guilty plea. He is scheduled for release from prison around the end of September.
The sanctions were paid directly to the Sorensen family lawyers, with attorney Erin Cassinelli paid $5,240 for representing Katherine Sorensen, attorney Patrick James paid $4,170 for representing Garret Sorensen and $3,292 paid to attorney Chuck Banks for representing Walters.