December 18, 2014

Former Ouachita County Judge Sentenced to 33 Months in Prison for Bribery

EL DORADO, AR—Conner Eldridge, United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas announced today that James Michael Hesterly, age 50, of Camden, Arkansas, was sentenced today to 33 months in prison and one year of supervised release on one count of Bribery Concerning a Program Receiving Federal Funds. Hesterly and Harry Clemons Jr., age 39 of Bearden, Arkansas were indicted for a scheme to award a Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) disaster-relief contract to Clemons by rigging the bidding process in return for a contribution to Hesterly’s 2010 reelection campaign for Ouachita County Judge. Hesterly had been the county judge of Ouachita County Arkansas for the past 10 years. Harry Clemons is the owner and operator of Clemons Construction. A federal grand jury handed down the indictments in Fort Smith on January 17, 2013. The Honorable Susan O. Hickey presided over the sentencing hearing in The United States District Court in El Dorado.

U.S. Attorney Eldridge commented, “With today’s sentence a strong message has been sent regarding our office’s continuing commitment to aggressively pursue individuals who violate the public’s trust through their own greed and complete abdication of the duties they were sworn to uphold. This type of conduct by a public official offends taxpayers and citizens as well as all of the other public officials who are truly dedicated to their service.”

“Mr. Hesterly held a position of trust and responsibility to act appropriately in order to maintain a fair and competitive bidding process,” stated David T. Resch, Special Agent in Charge of the Little Rock FBI, “Today’s sentencing demonstrates the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI are committed to pursuing those who choose to use their official position for personal gain. The FBI would like to thank and commend Jeff Davis, a citizen of Ouachita County, who voluntarily agreed to cooperate in this investigation and who assisted the FBI in obtaining important evidence which lead to the convictions in this case.”

According to documents filed in court, beginning in March 2010, Hesterly proposed awarding Clemons a FEMA funded contract to clean up storm debris in Ouachita County without competitive bidding in exchange for a payment to Hesterly for his reelection campaign. The debris was the product of two tornados that struck the county in October of 2009. In furtherance of this conspiracy, Clemons arranged for two other bidders to submit intentionally inflated bids to Hesterly through fax. Clemons then met with Hesterly at his office and submitted a bid on behalf of himself and another company for the contract in the amount of $120,730, a total amount below the inflated bids. Hesterly accepted Clemons’s bid, and, on April 8, 2010, applied for federal funds from FEMA to help Ouachita County pay for the contract. Hesterly represented to FEMA that Clemons was the lowest bidder among the three bids that he had received. After FEMA approved and obligated the request, Hesterly requested that the contract price be increased by $4,000 representing that the increase was necessary to cover increased costs to Clemons for disposing of the debri. FEMA also approved that request, but the $4,000 was ultimately paid to Hesterly by Clemons as bribe money solicited by Hesterly for awarding the contract to Clemons.

In order to promote open competition, federal regulations require that the contract be awarded through a sealed bidding process and in compliance with all applicable state law. Hesterly corrupted the bidding process to ensure that the contract would be awarded to Clemons and not through a legitimate competitive bidding process. In August 2010, Clemons submitted documentation to Hesterly stating that all work on the contract had been complete and requested a payment of $69,865 for Clemons Construction. That same month, Hesterly certified to the state of Arkansas and FEMA that the work set forth in the contract had been completed. On October 13, 2010, Hesterly signed an order allowing Clemons’s claim for payment to go through. Later that month, Clemons received a check from Ouachita County for $69,865. Clemons then paid the $4,000 to Hesterly. Hesterly pleaded guilty to the offense on June 11, 2014.

Clemons was sentenced November 21, 2014 to two years of probation with a condition of home confinement with electronic monitoring for the first four months, a $2,500 fine, and ordered to pay $4,000 restitution jointly and severally with Hesterly.

This case was investigated by the FBI. United States Attorney Conner Eldridge and Assistant United States Attorney Kenneth Elser represented the United States.