Tuesday, January 6, 1998

Harmonís jail time is dependent on how sentencing is interpreted

BY LINDA FRIEDLIEB
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

The length of former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmonís sentence could hinge on whether he used threats to extort money from criminals or merely accepted bribes from individuals seeking to avoid prosecution.
    The answer could mean a difference of several years behind bars for Harmon, convicted in June of racketeering, possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute and three counts of extortion.
    At a hearing Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Reasoner listened to Assistant U.S. Attorney George Vena and Harmonís attorney, Lea Ellen Fowler, debate the merits of using two different sentencing guidelines to decide how long the former prosecutor will spend in federal prison. Reasoner then asked them to turn in written briefs on the topic by Jan. 30.
    "Thereís no question that the threat to send someone to a penitentiary is a serious threat," Reasoner said, before noting that Harman's victims were criminals who should have spent time in jail. "But we donít have a case of innocent people being threatened."
    Using threats to extort money carries stiffer penalties than bribery of a public official, though none of the lawyers said exactly what the difference would be. When a person is convicted under a particular statute, the federal sentencing guidelines look at actual conduct to make recommendations to judges in sentencing matters.
    Vena argued that Harmon used more than just the threat of prosecution to encourage his victims to turn over money and drugs.
    "The threat ... was not only incarceration but that they would be maxed out, that they would get the most severe punishment," Vena said.
    Fowler contested those assertions, saying that the testimony from Harmonís three-week trial did not back up the prosecutionís argument.
    "Each of these people has testified that if they paid the money and left the state, then they would have no consequences," she said.
    In addition to sentencing guide- lines, Reasoner listened to evidence Monday about Harmonís Oct. 4 arrest and formally revoked the former prosecutorís supervised release, although Harmon has been in jail since the FBI took him into custody.
    The arrest spawned four new federal charges in a case pending before U.S. District Judge Henry Woods. Fowler said Monday that the new case was in a holding pattern while the attorneys finished off the racketeering case.
    In a related case Monday, Reasoner dismissed a racketeering charge alleging that the former head of the 7th Judicial District drug task force had conspired with Harmon to run a criminal enterprise.
    The move, which reflected Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling Striplingís request, leaves Roger Walls facing three rather than four charges when his trial begins Wednesday in federal court.
    Walls still has to fight allegations that he conspired to manufacture drugs and two charges of conspiring to extort money. The manufacturing charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The extortion charges also could lead to 20 years in prison, but only a $250,000 fine.

Copyright 1997, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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