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FAYETTEVILLE -- The laptop computer used in the investigation of a kickback case involving state lawmakers was missing 79 covertly recorded audio files because a federal investigator took it home for unauthorized personal use and then wiped the machine's memory before returning it, according to a letter from government attorneys filed Monday.

The missing files caused the delay of the corruption trial of former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and two others accused of arranging kickbacks in return for state grants. The trial was delayed until April 9 instead of the scheduled Dec. 4 date. Defense attorneys in the case have filed for dismissal of the case, alleging the government acted in bad faith.

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According to the government,Woods was indicted for accepting kickbacks from Ecclesia College in Springdale passed through consultant Randell Shelton Jr. Shelton's consulting contract was approved by the college's president, Oren Paris III, who is also charged in the case. He is accused of paying kickbacks in return for state grants to the private Christian college.

At issue are audio recordings made by then-Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, who pleaded guilty on a corruption charge Jan 4 for his role in the kickback plan. Copies of other recordings made by Neal were turned over to the defense counsel. Defense counsel noticed that texts and other documents in evidence mentioned in other conversations and demanded to know whether more audio recordings were available.

Neal's attorney, Shane Wilkinson of Bentonville, informed the government that more recordings were available -- 79 of them -- on Nov. 15, according to court documents. Government counsel informed defense attorneys that day by letter, and the whole issue was the subject of an in-chambers hearing with U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks on Nov. 30.

The trial was indefinitely delayed the next day, and the government looked into what happened to copies it should have had, according to court documents. The original recordings were still available, and Wilkinson offered case attorneys access to them in the Nov. 30 hearing.

A letter filed in court records Monday, attached to a renewed motion to dismiss the case, includes the government's letter detailing what happened.

FBI special agent Robert Cessario told government attorneys that he wiped the government laptop's memory before handing it over to the bureau's computer analysis response team examiner, according to the letter. Asked why, the agent said he "allowed his children to download and play games on it," and he downloaded personal medical records, including those involving his children, and didn't want his supervisors to know.

He also said the computer had been wiped previously since Nov. 3, 2016, once when it was infected with ransomware and another time when its memory was full. He was trying to locate records showing that, according to Monday's letter.

Hearings on these and other matters are scheduled for Jan. 10 and Jan. 25 at the federal courthouse in Fayetteville.

Woods, a Republican from Springdale, faces 15 counts of fraud, all relating to either wire or mail transfers of money. Paris and Shelton are named in 14 of the fraud charges. All three are charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit fraud. Woods is also charged with one count of money laundering in connection with the purchase of a cashier's check.

Shelton's motion argues that the government's claim that it "never obtained" the audio recordings isn't true.

Asked about Cessario's role, a spokesman for FBI headquarters in Little Rock said this was an internal personnel matter and the agency has no further comment on it.

Monday's letter confirms that the FBI has taken up an investigation of the matter.

State Desk on 12/19/2017

Print Headline: Missing audio recordings in kickback case erased, court records show

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Comments

  • HogJockey
    December 19, 2017 at 4:15 a.m.

    What is going on at the FBI? I cannot imagine how this "Special Agent" could survive this but have an idea he'll be around for awhile. The once proud agency is plagued by idiots.

  • TimberTopper
    December 19, 2017 at 7:41 a.m.

    Fire the special agent, and whoever was responsible for seeing that the evidence was protected.

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