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Former Ouachita County Judge pleads guilty to bribery

Updated: Apr 13

James Hesterly

James Hesterly

Former Ouachita County Judge James Hesterly admitted to bribery with federal funds in exchange for a campaign donation Wednesday. According to Conner Eldridge, United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, James Hesterly, 50, of Camden, pleaded guilty to one count of bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds and could face up to 10 years in prison. Hesterly and Harry Clemons Jr., 39, of Bearden, were indicted in January 2013 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. Eldridge said in a statement:

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. To abuse your position of public trust to engage in illegal activities in order to enrich oneself is an affront to our justice system.

Clemons is the owner and operator of Clemons Construction. Hesterly had earlier pled not guilty to bribery and fraud charges. According to documents filed in court, in 2010 Hesterly proposed awarding Clemons a FEMA funded contract to clean up debris from a 2009 storm in Ouachita County without competitive bidding in exchange for a payment to Hesterly for his reelection campaign. 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; in April 2010, he then applied for federal funds from FEMA to pay for the contract, according to court documents. Hesterly apparently told FEMA that Clemons was the lowest bidder among the three bids that he had received.  After FEMA approved 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 debris. FEMA 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. State law also requires bids to be advertised for 10 days, but the bid in this case was advertised for one day, according to Eldridge. In August 2010, Clemons submitted documentation to Hesterly stating that all work on the contract had been complete; he then 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. In October 2010, Clemons received a check from Ouachita County for $69,865. Clemons then paid the $4,000 to Hesterly. Just another example of your tax dollars at work.

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