FORT SMITH -- Former state Sen. Jake Files was sentenced Monday to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution for offenses that included obtaining state General Improvement Fund money for a ball-field project and then using it for his own purposes.
In a 90-minute sentencing hearing, Western Arkansas Chief U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III emphasized the theft of public money by an elected official in a position of public trust and the damage Files' actions had caused in destroying the public's confidence in elected officials.
"To me, this is an egregious violation of public trust," Holmes said.
He said Files' position of public trust separated him from others who have committed white-collar crimes, even though the $26,945.91 in taxpayer money Files has admitted taking is less than what others whom Holmes has sentenced have stolen.
Holmes ordered Files to pay $83,903.47 restitution for the $26,945.91 in state General Improvement Fund money he obtained for the River Valley Sports Complex ball-field project and for the $56,957.56 in bank loans he received by pledging collateral he didn't own.
Files, 46, has been free on a signature bond since his plea to wire fraud, bank fraud and money-laundering charges Jan. 29. He will remain free until he reports to federal prison. Holmes set Aug. 2 as Files' reporting date.
"The guilt I feel is more than I can bear," Files said in a lengthy statement he made in court before his sentencing. "I feel it every day."
Files arrived in court Monday clean-shaven -- he sported a full beard at his Jan. 29 plea hearing -- and wearing a dark suit while accompanied by his court-appointed Federal Public Defender James Pierce.
A handful of family members sat quietly in the audience.
Files was allowed to slip in and out a back door in the fenced secure area of the federal courthouse rather than coming and going through the public entrance where members of news organizations were waiting.
"I stand before you a broken and humble man," he said at the beginning of the statement.
Files said he has suffered greatly because of his crimes. He has lost his home and his business, he said, can't find work and was about to lose his wife and family.
Files said he and his family have received "vile" emails, and that his children have been approached at school and church and chastised because of their father's conduct.
He said he lost his reputation within his community and the state and will never serve in public office again.
Files served in the state Senate from 2011 until early February, when he resigned his District 8 Senate seat after pleading guilty to the federal charges.
At the time of his resignation, Files was chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee and served on the Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Efficiency Committee, the Arkansas Legislative Council and the Joint Budget Committee.
He served two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003.
Victor Salgado, a trial attorney in the Department of Justice's public integrity sector, told Holmes on Monday that he hoped Files' sentencing would be the first of several sentences in public corruption cases in Arkansas.
Salgado asked Holmes to sentence Files to the top end of the 12- to 18-month sentencing range indicated by calculations in the federal sentencing guidelines. He said the sentence would send the message that public officials who violate their public trust will be held accountable.
In response to Salgado's remarks, Pierce said he did not believe Files should be subject to harsher treatment by the government because he is the first in a line of public corruption cases to be sentenced.
"I don't buy that," Holmes said.
Admitting that federal law mandated a prison sentence for the bank fraud conviction, Pierce said justice would be served by allowing Files to serve one day in prison.
Pierce pointed to Files' time in office and that he was recognized for his work to make the Fort Smith community a better place.
Pierce admitted that Files was flawed and had made bad decisions, but he noted that Files also had no criminal background.
He said Files had no prior arrests and didn't have any problems with alcohol or any mental problems.
When federal agents descended on his construction company office in south Fort Smith in August to serve search warrants, Pierce said, Files cooperated with them and with federal prosecutors.
"Jake Files did everything he could to make things right," Pierce said.
In a separate matter, a special prosecutor was appointed last month to investigate whether Files violated any state laws. Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Shue requested the appointment of the special prosecutor because preliminary allegations of fault or possible criminal conduct were made to his office.
Shue did not reveal in his request for a special prosecutor what the allegations of fault or criminal conduct were, but the request followed a letter from Shue in April to Duane "Dak" Kees, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, asking whether an $80,000 wire transfer from nursing-home industry executive David L. Norsworthy to Files' construction company, FFH Construction LLC. on Nov. 24, 2014, was a violation of federal law.
Shue's letter asked whether the federal government investigated the transfer and whether it was part of the conduct for which Files was sentenced Monday.
The federal wire-fraud and money-laundering charges originated with Files obtaining money from a $46,500 General Improvement Fund grant he authorized to go to Fort Smith through the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District.
The grant was to pay for work on the River Valley Sports Complex that Files and Lee Webb were developing on city property at Chaffee Crossing.
Files falsified three bids for a utility extension project and wrote the bids so that an employee, DiAnna Gonzales, would be awarded the project.
Files instructed Gonzales that once she received the $26,945.91 grant check from the city, she was to open a bank account at Armstrong Bank and deposit the check into the account.
He then told her to withdraw $14,000 in cash from that account and a cashier's check totaling $11,931.91 payable to FFH Construction and deliver the money and check to him.
He used the cash to pay his construction company employees back wages and to give Gonzales bonuses, and deposited the cashier's check into a bank account in his name at First National Bank of Fort Smith.
The bank-fraud charge involved a loan Files received from First Western Bank in November 2016, for which he pledged a Sky-Trak forklift as collateral.
Court records say he had sold the forklift in March 2016 to someone to whom he owed $55,000.
A Section on 06/19/2018
Print Headline: Ex-state senator gets 18 months for fraud