PINE BLUFF -- A special prosecutor has been selected to look into a criminal complaint filed by one Jefferson County election commissioner against another.
Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter said Jason Barrett of Maumelle was chosen by the office of the prosecutor coordinator in Little Rock to look into allegations that Election Commissioner Stuart Soffer, 78, of White Hall intimidated and threatened Election Commissioner Theodis "Ted" Davis, 75, of Pine Bluff during a meeting of the Election Commission last month.
Soffer is one of two Republican members of the commission, and Davis is the Democratic member of the three-member commission. Michael Adam, 75, of Pine Bluff, is the third member of the commission. Adam, also a Republican, is chairman of the Election Commission.
According to a complaint that Davis filed with the prosecuting attorney's office on Oct. 29, at the previous night's Election Commission meeting, Soffer "became angry doing (sic) the meeting stood up from his seat and in a shouting threatening voice, daring Commissioner Ted Davis to go outside to settle this."
Davis said in the affidavit that he did not respond to Soffer but shortly after the meeting adjourned, Soffer followed him outside the building, issued threats and gestured in a threatening manner.
Hunter recused himself from the matter on the grounds that, as the county's prosecuting attorney, he represents the Jefferson County Election Commission as an entity and therefore cannot represent any action by one commissioner against another. Hunter notified District Judge Kim Bridgforth of the conflict, and Bridgforth directed Bob McMahan, the state prosecutor coordinator, to select a special prosecutor to decide whether to file formal charges against Soffer based on Davis' complaint.
At the meeting in question, election commissioners discussed mold and moisture problems in the Election Commission office and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act at an administration building, belonging to the Pine Bluff School District, at 1215 W. Pullen Ave., which serves Precincts 419, 420, 421, and 422.
A disagreement ensued after Soffer's proposal to relocate voters in those precincts to St. James United Methodist Church seven-tenths of a mile away at 900 University Drive.
"The only fix I can see is consolidating," Soffer said at the Oct. 28 meeting. "And we put the information out there for the public and ask for public comment."
Davis has in the past opposed any consideration of polling site consolidation, contending that doing so places barriers in the way of people voting. To close a polling site requires a unanimous vote from the three-person commission.
Davis said that since the meeting the Pine Bluff School District notified the commission that it intended to make the needed renovations to the building to make it compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That, Davis said, rendered the whole discussion moot.
"I'm pleased that that's the case but my opposition was to move the polling place in the first place," Davis said Thursday. "That's because I know that anytime we start moving polling places, it inhibits or suppresses the voter turnout in that community."
The discussion at the meeting was contentious virtually from the outset of the proceedings, with the commissioners repeatedly trying to talk over one another and Adam several times hammering the table with his gavel to restore order.
During the discussion regarding the Pine Bluff School Administration building on West Pullen Avenue, commissioners compromised on a measure to reach out to the school administration to ask what might be done at that level to get the building into compliance.
At one point, Adam asked Davis if he was volunteering to contact the school administration.
"You're the chairman," Davis said, to which Adam replied, "I'll take that as a no."
Soffer then said "if Commissioner Davis wants to do something more than draw a paycheck for showing up at a meeting, he's more than welcome ...."
At that point, Davis cut Soffer off, shouting.
"Don't insult me. You can't sit there and insult me like that and me not say anything," Davis yelled as Adam attempted to intervene.
"Let's take it outside," Soffer said, rising from his chair. "I'm tired of your stuff. You want to take it outside and settle this man to man? Either that or be civilized to me like I am to you."
Once the meeting ended, Davis immediately headed to the exit, followed by Soffer, who approached Davis and abruptly put his right hand into his pant pocket, a gesture that Davis, according to the affidavit, interpreted as threatening.
"I stated to him (twice) 'I am walking away from you.' He continued to come after me with his hand in his pocket, while I continued to walk away," Davis said in the affidavit. "I looked back and heard Commissioner Adam yelling at Soffer to stop it."
According to the affidavit, Davis said Soffer followed him outside the building and stood on the sidewalk next to the Election Commission office on the opposite side of the street from where Davis had parked his car "pointing something in his right hand in my direction."
In an email Thursday, Soffer denied threatening Davis but did admit to losing his temper at the meeting, accusing Davis of subjecting him to false accusations, lies and fabricated lawsuits. Soffer also accused Davis of trying to upset elections in Jefferson County by opposing every initiative he or Adam took to the commission.
"It was sheer frustration but I should not have taken the bait," Soffer said in the email. "I subsequently apologized to Chairman Mike Adam for my unprofessional comment. I also checked with an attorney who said my offer was not a threat."
McMahan said that as of Thursday he did not know for sure if Barrett's selection as special prosecutor has been finalized.
"The procedure that we will follow is that the judge will order me to find somebody," McMahan said. "I contacted Jason, and he's agreed to do it. Then, I sent a letter to Judge Bridgforth -- and I don't know if he's actually been appointed yet, so there might still be one step left in the procedure before that's 100% confirmed."
Barrett was out of the office Thursday working on a case in another part of Arkansas and was not available for comment.
"I don't know if he's been sworn in at this point, but I would imagine he is the one who is going to take that case," McMahan said.
McMahan said Barrett has worked as a special prosecutor for the past five or six years.
"He's been a deputy prosecutor in multiple jurisdictions here in the state, and he worked here as a staff attorney even before that," McMahan said. "He probably has 20 years of prosecutorial experience."
McMahan said it would likely be several weeks before Barrett makes a determination whether to file formal charges, and if he does, what those charges might be and whether they will be misdemeanor or felony charges.
State Desk on 11/22/2019
Print Headline: Prosecutor picked to review fray involving election commissioners