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State Attorney General Convicted of Abusing Expense Privileges

November 2, 1990

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ State Attorney General Steven Clark was convicted Thursday of abusing his expense privileges. He was fined $10,000 but drew no prison time.

″Obviously, I’m very disappointed,″ Clark said after the verdict was announced. ″As I’ve said all along, it was never my intention to defraud or deceive.″

Judge Perry V. Whitmore fined Clark $10,000 but did not sentence him to jail, which Clark’s lawyer said would be a death sentence for Arkansas’ top legal official.

″Even though you are attorney general - in this respect I feel ridiculous - but I must tell you, you can appeal,″ Whitmore said.

The corruption trial went to the jury earlier in the day after a prosecutor compared the attorney general’s ambitions to a runaway train fueled by state money.

″The General was feeding that train. And as he was feeding that train, to keep his gubernatorial campaign alive, he’d throw coal in. That coal is your money,″ prosecutor Chris Piazza told jurors in closing arguments.

Clark, 43, was convicted of a less severe charge. He was charged with theft by deception of more than $2,500, which carried a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a $15,000 fine. Clark was convicted of theft by deception of less than $2,500, which carried a maximum penalty of three to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Piazza said after the verdict was announced: ″I don’t ever regret a jury verdict.″

Earlier, Piazza said Clark was consumed by his dream to become governor but couldn’t afford to entertain political supporters and generate campaign contributions without the help of state money through his expense account and state credit card.

Defense attorney Bill Bristow said Clark already had lost.

″Another jury has already issued a verdict to Steve Clark. That is the jury of public opinion,″ Bristow said.

″Steve Clark has been the subject of ridicule. ‘Let’s go to lunch’ is a statewide joke,″ Bristow said. ″Steve Clark’s political dream - the dream to be governor - is gone.

″If Steve Clark ran for dog catcher right now, he’d lose to a write-in candidate.″

Clark, attorney general since 1979, earns $26,500 a year plus a $15,000 salary supplement.

Published reports of discrepancies in his expense reports prompted Clark to drop out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary Feb. 7.

Piazza said Clark ″lived off the state.″

He said Clark stayed at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., with a girlfriend. ″He stayed there on your money. You paid for him and her to have room service,″ Piazza said.

Bristow said Clark might be liable for civil penalties if he used poor judgment, but insisted that Clark didn’t break any laws.

″What you’re going to see is unauthorized use of funds, not stealing,″ Bristow said.

He said there was little or no restriction on Clark’s use of the state Visa card.

Clark testified he never intended to deceive anyone with his expense filings.

Under cross-examination Wednesday, Clark said he was doing more than the law required by keeping expense records. No other top state official does so, he said.

″If I wanted to deceive anyone, I wouldn’t have done anything and I certainly wouldn’t have used the names of prominent people so people could come in and say, ’Steve Clark says he ate with you, is that right?‴ Clark said.

Among the prosecution’s 141 witnesses, state Supreme Court Justice Jack Holt, several state legislators, lobbyists and reporters testified that they didn’t eat with Clark, although their names were on his expense claims.

Clark claimed he accidentally listed as guests people he talked with at the restaurants, met earlier in the day or who were topics of discussion at meals. He said he waited weeks to update expense records from memory or notes.

Clark denied the state’s theory that he name-dropped on his expense claims to hide dates, getaways and political engagements from taxpayers who footed the bills.

Piazza said the attorney general made up the names of guests so the expensive meals - some more than $500 - would appear to be legitimate state business.

″For your political life, didn’t you have to justify $500 meals? Were you not concerned about how it would look if you spend $500 to take a girlfriend and her family out to dinner?″ Piazza said.

Juror Brenda Beall, 27, of North Little Rock said the decision was fair to Clark and to taxpayers.

″I didn’t want to see the man go to prison. My God, he has suffered enough, but we didn’t want him to get away with taking our money - your money, my money,″ she said.

″I don’t feel in my heart that he is the only one who did this. The only difference between him and everybody else is he got caught,″ she said.

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