Saturday, December 18, 2010

TOP STORY > >Verdict is guilty in trial of pair

By Stephen steed
Special to The Leader

A jury in the federal trial of a Cabot man and North Little Rock alderman on Friday night returned guilty verdicts on several weapons and related charges.

George Wylie Thompson, 65, of Cabot was convicted on all eight charges, including being a felon in possession of guns and ammunition, possession of unregistered silencers, conducting an illegal gambling operation and aiding and abetting marriage fraud.

Sam Baggett, 56, a North Little Rock alderman since 2008, was convicted on three charges, including selling guns to a felon, falsifying federal firearms papers, and making false statements to federal agents.

The jury received the case early Friday afternoon after closing arguments by federal prosecutors and the two defense teams. The trial, including jury selection, began Dec. 7 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson.

Thompson already has three felony convictions – on drug charges in federal court in 1989, and on drug charges in state court in 2003. Last fall, he was convicted in federal court, again on drug charges that arose from the investigation that led to this week’s trial on the weapons charges.

As a two-time convicted felon in 2007, according to prosecutors, Thompson came into possession of several weapons by answering classified ads, accepting guns as collateral on loans or as payments on gambling debts, or buying them through a third party. Baggett, whose barber shop in the Levy neighborhood also serves as his gun business, helped Thompson acquire at least three guns, prosecutors allege.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Hoey said in closing arguments Friday there are no exceptions that would allow a felon to possess guns or ammunition. “There’s no exemption for collecting, exterminating or squirrel hunting,” Hoey said. “The purpose is irrelevant.”

On May 12, 2009, federal agents raided Thompson’s home in Cabot and other property on the Pulaski-Lonoke County line. They seized a total of 147 guns of various calibers and types, five unregistered silencers and some 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

Baggett testified that he has known Thompson for about 15 years but didn’t know he was a felon until after the raid.

In any case, he said, he never sold Thompson a firearm or helped him acquire guns by any other means. Prosecutors contend that Baggett sold a gun to a third party, who then transferred the gun to Thompson, and that Baggett knew that the actual buyer was Thompson.

At best, Baggett was practicing “deliberate ignorance,” Hoey said Friday morning. “Reason, deduction and common sense” should have led Baggett to know Thompson was a felon, Hoey said.

Blake Hendrix, one of Thompson’s two attorneys, said the federal law prohibiting felons from possessing firearms is aimed at “dangerous men.”

“George Thompson is not a dangerous man,” Hendrix said, noting that one of the weapons seized is one Thompson got when he was 5 years old. Thompson also didn’t know it was illegal for a felon to own ammunition and didn’t know the silencers were silencers, Hendrix said. He noted that a gun expert for the prosecution acknowledged earlier in the trial that it required a laboratory test to identify the silencers as silencers.

Thompson’s bookmaking didn’t constitute a federal offense, defined as involving five or more people, Hendrix said. Others involved were fellow bookies but were independent of each other, Hendrix said. “They were more like competitors” than colleagues running the same business, he said.

Hendrix attacked the credibility of a government witness – Cary Gaines, a former North Little Rock alderman who pleaded guilty to wire fraud last week. Gaines said he and Thompson conspired to fix bids on city jobs, with any kickbacks going to Thompson to repay Gaines’ gambling debts. Thompson is scheduled to stand trial on that charge next year. That trial would have included Gaines – until his guilty plea.

“To believe a word out of his (Gaines’) mouth – let alone base a conviction on it – would be an injustice,” Hendrix told jurors.

Before his arrest, Thompson flew to Bangkok, Thailand. His attorneys noted during the trial that Thompson has made yearly trips to Southeast Asia for some three decades, since his days as a Marine in the Vietnam War.

But, in closing arguments, Hoey noted that this time Thompson was gone for 151 days — much longer than previous trips. “Remember, he came home courtesy of the FBI – in FBI custody,” she said.

John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, Baggett’s attorney, said the government’s case was based on innuendo and on the testimony of several witnesses who have pleaded guilty to various crimes. They’re hoping for a reduction in their sentences in exchange for their testimony, he said.

Thompson also is charged with arranging a fraudulent marriage – between a colleague, Tony Milner of North Little Rock, and a Chinese woman who wanted to marry a U.S. citizen as a way to gain U.S. citizenship. Milner testified that he was to receive $25,000 and Thompson was to receive $5,000. The marriage materialized, but the money didn’t. The woman is now a fugitive, according to prosecutors.

Friday, December 17, 2010

EDITORIAL >>President Huckabee?

If Mike Huckabee is elected president, a prospect that is not so remote as it once was, he will have followed the most circuitous path ever. We mean that no one has ever come down, decisively, on both sides of so many issues.

You know the history: on taxes, immigration, health care or almost any serious policy controversy that you can name, he has taken the progressive and then the alternative side. This week it was energy policy.

On the blog of his political fund-raising arm, Huck PAC, the former governor wrote Wednesday that he was upset that a contributor had said that he had supported federal cap-and-trade legislation in 2007 when he was kicking off his campaign for president.

“To put it simply, that’s just not true,” Huckabee said. “This kind of mandatory energy policy would have a horrible impact on the nation’s job market. I never did support it—period.”

That is pretty emphatic. If you remember, the cap-and-trade approach to lower global-warming carbon emissions and break American dependence on foreign oil was fairly popular back in 2007. It was the conservative alternative to a straightforward carbon tax, but the U. S. Senate was stymieing even that approach. The oil and coal industries and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce geared up a massive advertising assault on cap and trade and anything that would try to reduce the consumption of carbon fuels—it would throw people out of work, they said—and public attitudes shifted against cap and trade. The politicians followed.

But Politico was unkind enough to dig up Huckabee’s actual recorded remarks on the subject at an Oct. 13, 2007, appearance at the Clean Air- Cool Planet conference in Manchester, N.H. He said the House of Representatives should adopt measures passed by the Senate to raise the standards for carbon emissions. Then he added:

“I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions. And I was disappointed that the Senate rejected a carbon-counting system to measure the sources of emissions, because that would have been the first and the most important step toward implementing true cap and trade.”

The House of Representatives actually did everything he urged, including passage of a watered-down cap-and-trade bill, but the legislation died in the Senate. It is hard to find any reservations in “I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions.”

A man’s position can easily change in three years, but the truth of what he did doesn’t change.

But we sometimes find ourselves looking at our formerly favorite son’s flexibility in a different light. It makes him a little more appealing than any of the other current Republican wannabes, except perhaps former Gov. Mitt Romney, who has changed has position on issues just about as often as Huckabee. Romney doesn’t lie about changing positions, but he explains it away.

If you’re looking for some adaptability in the hidebound stances of politicians, then Huckabee gives you some hope that as president he might work for measures that help common people even if it meant collaborating with Democrats, which was his practice as governor of Arkansas.

After all, as governor, he once said that before leaving office he intended to see that every person in Arkansas was insured for health care. He never got around to doing more than increasing the government’s insuring role for children and low-income working adults, but at the time it seemed that he was looking at Romney’s example in Massachusetts. Romney soon afterward got the Democratic legislature to pass a universal health-insurance law for that state that became the template for the law that Congress passed last year—the one all Republicans, including Huckabee, are now condemning. It required everyone to purchase insurance except those too poor to afford it, who were covered by the state-federal insurance option.

Then Thursday night, Huckabee appeared on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to plug his new Christmas book. Stewart trapped him by talking about the plight of the 9/11 rescuers who are dying from ailments caused by inhalation at the crash site. Republicans in the Senate are blocking passage of legislation to help with their health care by saying Congress should adjourn for Christmas rather than take up such legislation. Huckabee said the bill should be passed immediately and he first tried to blame it on the Democrats for tying it to other legislation. Stewart corrected him and said it was a stand-alone bill. In that case, Huckabee said, the Republican senators should stop obstructing the bill and vote for it, and he told about a personal friend who was one of those dying from his work at the disaster site.

That is the Huckabee we have admired from time to time. There’s a 50/50 chance that would be the Huckabee who would be president. In our book it gives him a leg up on the current Republican field. But then we fully expect to hear him deny that he ever supported the 9/11 bill should it somehow become an issue in the presidential race. He will have lots of chances to change our mind.

TOP STORY > >Alderman is in limbo over signs

Leader staff writer

Beebe Alderman Les Cossey, who was arrested during the early hours of Election Day in November for stealing his opponent’s campaign signs, remains off the city council pending his appearance in court.

Cossey, charged with theft of property valued at less than $500, was originally scheduled for court on Dec. 9. But late in November, District Judge Teresa Hughes stepped down from the case and Chief Justice Jim Hannah has not yet appointed her replacement.

The charge against Cossey is a misdemeanor and not a felony.

Although Cossey easily won the election to retain his Ward 3 Position 2 seat on the Beebe City Council with 863 votes to Jonathan Gordon’s 427 and James Ringbolt’s 155, it is unclear whether he will be allowed to remain on the council if he is convicted.

Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution together with a recent ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court seem to disqualify him from serving. Article 5 says in part that no person convicted of an infamous crime shall be “capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state.”

And in October, the Supreme Court ruled that stealing campaign signs constitutes an “infamous crime.”

The high court ruling upheld a ruling by Sebastian County Circuit Judge Michael Fitzhugh, who said in September that Greenwood Mayor Kenneth Edwards, convicted in 2009 of stealing three signs opposing a tax extension that he supported, was ineligible to run for mayor again because he had been convicted of an infamous crime.

The Supreme Court also ordered the election commission not to count any votes cast for Edwards.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown wrote in the opinion handed down in October that “Edwards is a public official who perpetrated a theft while in office and who now seeks to be re-elected to the same position of public trust. By his actions he has impugned the integrity of that office. We hold that misdemeanor theft is a crime of dishonesty and, as such, fits readily within the classification of an ‘infamous crime.’”

Cossey has not been available for comment since the arrest, but he said in a press release that he had voluntarily stepped down from the council until the end of the year.

Mayor Mike Robertson said this week that he had no information about the situation other than what Cossey had already given to the press.

Cossey was arrested by the White County Sheriff’s Depart-ment, not by Beebe police. Beebe Police Chief Wayne Ballew asked the sheriff to handle the case because Cossey is on the council.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s department said when Cossey was arrested, Gordon’s wife was out checking on her husband’s campaign signs and saw Cossey taking them and called the Beebe police.

Cossey was arrested about 4 a.m., three and a half hours before the polls opened.

He was attempting to conceal the signs under his jacket when he was arrested, the spokesman said.

Cossey was taken to the Beebe Police Department, where he paid a $1,000 bond before he was released.

TOP STORY > >Can anyone save this district? Future at stake as takeover looms

Leader senior staff writer

The state Board of Education could place the Pulaski County Special School District back in fiscal distress as early as next month, Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell told the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday, after it finishes reviewing the extensive investigation by state auditors.

“We looked at the previous report and were awaiting this report, but it would be January under statute before we could place the district in fiscal distress,” Kimbrell told The Leader Friday morning.

The state Education Department put PCSSD in fiscal distress in 2005, from which the district emerged in 2007 after careful oversight by the state.

At that time, the district’s reserves had run unacceptably low.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Charles Hopson—who met with Kimbrell Friday afternoon—dismissed as false the rumors posted as fact on the teachers’-union-friendly website, that he would resign or that he would ask Kimbrell to dissolve the school board.

Hopson said Friday afternoon that he was committed to the task of giving PCSSD students a world-class education and that he would not be deterred by or yield to the distractions.


School board president Bill Vasquez has called a special board meeting for 6 p.m. Monday to review and discuss the latest audit and has scheduled an executive session to discuss personnel—presumably to discuss whether or not to discipline or fire Hopson.

In October, Hopson promised members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee that they would be pleasantly surprised when he and board members appeared before them for a fourth audit update in December.

Instead, the surprise was Hopson’s, and not at all pleasant Wednesday morning as he found himself in the hot seat over $23,919 in what the auditors deemed “unallowable (moving) expenses.”

Hopson attributed most of the auditors’ concerns to misunderstandings regarding the $25,000 moving stipend in his contract, and said he would not repay the money but would declare it as income on his W-2 for the IRS.


Kim Williams, deputy legislative auditor over investigations, said Friday that Hopson’s plan would satisfy the concerns of the auditors.

Hopson’s contract, in addition to an annual salary of $205,000, included the $25,000 moving stipend.

Most of those expenses stem from costs related to his moving himself and his family from Portland, Ore., to Little Rock. The money was to cover costs to obtain Little Rock area housing for the first six months while he sold his house in Portland.

Five thousand dollars of that $25,000 didn’t require any documentation, while the other $20,000 was documented with a district-provided debit or credit card. When those expenses appeared on the credit card issued him, the auditors were alarmed, but Hopson says they were covered under the terms of the contract.

Here’s what his negotiator says was the final contract language regarding those costs and documentation:
“Further, the board will provide a moving and relocation stipend of $25,000, with expenses of up to $20,000 to be documented with receipts. The moving and relocation stipend may be used by the superintendent to cover the cost of moving his family and belongings to Pulaski County, Arkansas, for up to 12 months following the effective date of this agreement, including all related travel and other expenses for the superintendent, his spouse and child, and may be used for any and all costs for him to obtain housing in Pulaski County and the cost of his housing for the first six months of his residency in Pulaski County. At its discretion, the district may allow the superintendent to document his moving and relocation expenses by using a district-provided debit or credit card to pay for such expenses.”


“I will not apologize for my salary and benefits,” Hopson told the joint audit committee. He said they were in line with the compensation for other superintendents of districts with the size and difficulty of PCSSD, and that he needed to be compensated for the substantial equity he had built up in 22 years with the Portland school district.

In August, because the state Bureau of Legislative Audit discovered the unauthorized purchase and sale of about $439,000 of school property by employees, improper reimbursement of some school board members, overpayment of former Supt. James Sharpe and poor oversight of other financial matters, Kimbrell warned the district by letter of “early indicators of fiscal distress.”

The specific indicators for PCSSD were: “State or federal audit exceptions or violations and failure to comply with state law governing purchasing or bid requirements.”

The district subsequently took actions aimed at tighter controls of purchasing, requested the return of Sharpe’s alleged overpayments, and the employee who diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars of school property to his own use or enrichment pled guilty to theft of property and is in prison.


Other new concerns of the auditors included:

Board member Gwen Wil-liams owes the district $1,233 for cell-phone usage, mileage, gratuities, parking and travel advances. Board member Mildred Tatum owes $95 for National School Board Association dues and $21 for mileage overpayment.

Three new members of the superintendent’s cabinet were hired as consultants prior to beginning full-time employment, and also were paid for days worked before they started work.

The district’s chief financial officer, Anita Farver, told legislators that occurred because of a shortcoming in the payroll software that would be rectified. She said those in question would either use leave to offset the extra pay or else would reimburse the district.

Auditors were concerned that Hopson spent $760,500 to purchase 39 used school buses without first getting board approval. Hopson said it was an emergency and that the buses were bought through state procurement.


Auditors found that internal financial oversight was still deficient.

“The board should increase and maintain its knowledge and awareness of fiscal oversight, accountability and fiduciary responsibilities,” the auditors said and should, with administration, strive to demonstrate to personnel the necessity of standards and fiscal prudence.

They also were concerned that the district had legal expenses of $961,000, of which about half was related to matters pertaining to the desegregation agreement and attempts in federal district court to have the district declared unitary.

Much of the rest related to unsuccessful attempts by the district to decertify the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.

Both the auditors and some members of the joint audit committee were concerned that the district left more than $4 million of the $20 million it received in desegregation funds unspent.

The auditors also noted that salaries and benefits for administrators for the current school year were about $713,000 more than a year ago.

Vasquez said the board would scrutinize both central administration and school-based administration with an eye toward cutting positions and salaries through either attrition or by laying people off.

The district has perhaps three times as many principals and assistant principals as is required by state minimal standards.

SPORTS>>For record, ASU taking a whipping

By todd traub

Leader sports editor

My parents always liked to speak in euphemisms.

No one they knew ever died; they always “passed away.” They never knew any old people either, just “older” people, and my Dad never lost his temper when the lawn mower broke, he just got “a little excited.”

So it is that Arkansas State is not forfeiting anything after submitting its summary disposition report to the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The university is simply “voiding victories,” for allowing improperly certified athletes to participate during some of the school’s most successful recent seasons.

A little background — more than two years ago, Arkansas State discovered possible violations pertaining to whether athletes in multiple sports were meeting NCAA progress-toward-degree requirements.

It was apparently a case of human error on the certification side of the house, and the school reported itself to the NCAA on Aug. 25, 2008. The ensuing investigation revealed 31 athletes in six sports were improperly certified.

The upshot, as Arkansas State revealed Monday, is a series of university-imposed penalties that includes a $43,500 fine, a two-year probationary period, a reduction of one scholarship each in football and men’s basketball for the next two seasons and the aforementioned “voiding” of victories in football, baseball, men’s basketball and women’s soccer dating to 2005.

I don’t know how “voiding,” in this case, differs from “forfeiting” and it could just simply be someone’s choice of words. As usual, Arkansas State is not commenting further.

Either way, Arkansas State has to give up four football victories from 2005, when it went 6-5 and won a share of the Sun Belt championship and reached its first and only NCAA Division I-A bowl game. The school is voiding six victories from 2006, when it went 6-6.

That has to be a bitter pill for outgoing coach Steve Roberts, who resigned at the end of the season and now sees his best years at Arkansas State tarnished as he heads out the door.

The basketball team is voiding 15 victories from 2006-07, Dickey Nutt’s last good season when the team was 18-15 and reached the final of the Sun Belt Tournament. Basketball voided all 12 victories from 2005-06.

Baseball loses three victories from 2006-07 and soccer gives up five from 2005-06.

Every coach from these stricken teams is gone now, not that they had anything to do with the improper certification. The NCAA agrees there was no intentional effort to deceive or cheat on the university’s part, and remember Arkansas State voluntarily proposed these rather harsh punishments.

What a tough holiday season for the Red Wolves huh?

Unlike in other states, where there is room for more than one major college program in the population’s heart, Arkansas State always seems to find itself behind the eight-ball when trying to pull itself up to the level of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

This latest misadventure doesn’t help.

While things are looking up in Hogland — a BCS bowl for the first time and a contract extension to keep program-jumping coach Bobby Petrino from jumping elsewhere — this is a bleak period for Arkansas State.

The Red Wolves are starting over with a new football coach as Hugh Freeze was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Roberts. The basketball team showed promise last year under coach John Brady, but the Wolves, in Brady’s third season, have gotten off to an uncertain, 3-6 start.

I covered Arkansas State for close to 10 years while with the statewide daily and I know the athletic program is run by decent people who would not willfully cheat. I also know that as bad as things get, Arkansas State has a way of rolling up its sleeves and going to work.

The football program that was losing regularly to NCAA Division I-AA teams now expects to win at least six and be bowl eligible every year. The basketball team that reached the NCAA Tournament under Nutt in 1999 got as close as it has in a few years under Brady with 17 victories last season, including a first-round Sun Belt Tournament victory over the rival UALR Trojans.

I’ve been critical of Arkansas State in this space in the past, both for how it handled Roberts’ contract extension, or lack of one, and the way it brings down the cone of silence when trouble exactly like this takes place, and I don’t intend to be a Pollyana now.

But hey, Red Wolves, maybe the worst is behind you. You knew this was coming and now it’s over and the past, though revised, is the past.

At least you didn’t get the NCAA’s death penalty.

Sorry, I meant “passing away” penalty.

SPORTS>>Youthful Falcons learning by doing


Leader sportswriter

North Pulaski’s week of practice leading up to next week’s Red Devil Classic can be summed up with one word — defense.

The Falcons are coming off a 1-2 showing in the Wampus Cat Invitational, are 2-5 overall and have come close in many of their losses. They traveled across town Friday to play local rival Jacksonville in the same gym where next week’s annual holiday tournament will be played.

“The guy who did our schedule put some tough ones on there; we’re going to have to have a talk with that guy,” North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper said, referring to himself. “There’s some good and some bad in it. It’s good in that playing good teams exposes every weakness you have.

“When you’re winning, those weaknesses don’t show up as much, and they turn into bad habits. Every thing is pretty well exposed for us; now we’re in the process of trying to eliminate them.”

The Falcons returned from the Conway tourney and hit the practice court. But shooting and ball-handling drills were nowhere to be seen.

“We honed in on defense,” Cooper said. “We spent the whole week on defense. We didn’t even discuss offense until [Friday]. You win games by getting stops, and we have given up way too many easy baskets because we were out of position.

“There’s 20 things I could list off the top of my head, and we’ve gone down the list one by one trying to improve on them.”

The Christmas break includes another run of tournament games in which the aim is improvement. The Falcons will follow the Red Devil Classic with a tournament in Poplar Bluff, Mo., beginning on Dec. 27.

“It’s hard to get kids focused, especially during that time, but one thing they will show up for is games,” Cooper said. “We’ll play six games over the Christmas break, so hopefully we’ll have some growth. We’re very young, and the transition has been an adjustment for us.”

Senior forward Bryan Colson is the only returning starter from last year’s team, and only one of two players with significant playing time along with junior guard Shyheim Barron.

“That’s been the struggle,” Cooper said. “The other guys still don’t see the importance of attention to detail. It’s like all those little parts to a car. If your carburetor doesn’t work, and your radiator doesn’t work, it doesn’t even matter what kind of engine you have.”

Little Rock McClellan, another familiar opponent, awaits in the first round of the Red Devil Classic. The Falcons and Crimson Lions were conference rivals the past two seasons, with McClellan claiming the 5A-Southeast crown in 2009 and North Pulaski winning it the next year. The teams, though no longer in the same conference, have already split two games this season with North Pulaski winning 71-56 at home before falling in overtime in the rematch at McClellan.

“We’re getting to know each other pretty well,” Cooper said. “We’ve pretty well become rivals. It’s always a good test when we play them, but there are a lot of good teams with different styles in this tournament like Catholic and Little Rock Christian.

“We’re trying to get conference ready. Our record may look kind of rough now, but January starts a brand-new season.”

SPORTS>>Lonoke girls look for lift in league


Leader sportswriter

Victories and losses mean more to the Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits now that 2-4A Conference play has started, but improvement in every game is still top priority.

The Lady Jackrabbits are 7-4, 1-1 after falling 46-44 to Southside Batesville on Monday. It was Lonoke’s first conference loss since February 2009.

“We’re still in the process of putting everything together,” Lady Jackrabbits coach Nathan Morris said. “We go into every practice trying to get better.”

Lonoke got off to a good start with a 58-39 conference rout of Newport on Dec. 7 thanks to senior guard Cara Neighbors’ 17-point performance that led all scorers.

Patrice Smith was the surprise of the game, though. Smith made four three-pointers and finished with 13 points.

“We were able to get a few shots to drop,” Morris said. “In the second half, we made shots when we were given opportunities, we were also able to get to the line as well.”

Smith’s outside shooting was the difference in an earlier victory at Riverview when she hit the winning three-pointer just before the buzzer.

The home loss to Southside Batesville went to the wire, as the Lady Southerners led 21-16 at halftime before the Lady Jackrabbits outscored them 14-8 in the third quarter.

“It was a game of runs,” Morris said. “The last run was them.”

The Lady Jackrabbits were down by two with eight seconds to play when a shot on an inbound play fell short, as did two putback attempts.

Neighbors led with 17 points and Emily Howell scored 13.

Neighbors, averaging close to 20 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, is the only returning starter this year. Howell, Smith and Artice Morris all got significant playing time off the bench last season and are beginning to grow into their starting roles, Morris said.

“Every kid has done something to step up their game,” Morris said. “We even got better out of the loss to Southside; every game, we come out in better shape.”

Stuttgart was projected to be one of the tougher teams this season, but disciplinary issues have led to setbacks. Morris said Heber Springs, Cave City and Southside Batesville will be among the strongest contenders, and hopes his team will fall somewhere in the mix.

“I think you’re going to see a wide-open race,” Morris said. “We’ve seen teams get on a roll in the past, and it could be the same way again this year. A couple of teams get on a good roll before regional tournament time.”