Judge sanctions attorney in county administrator case

Conway attorney Joe Don Winningham was sanctioned and fined $5,000 on Wednesday by Fifth Division Judge Rhonda Wood for filing “an improper pleading” to dismiss the theft-of-property case against Faulkner County Administrator Jeff Johnston.

In August, prosecutors presented a warrant for Johnston's arrest to Wood for approval after Judge Charles E. Clawson reportedly declined to sign it.


Johnston pleaded innocent following his arrest for the alleged use of $3,800 in county funds for asphalt work to his driveway.


Last week, Winningham filed a motion seeking the dismissal of Johnston’s arrest warrant and felony charge based on a claim that criminal cases in the 20th Judicial District are assigned to either Clawson or Judge David Reynolds under an administrative plan approved in January by the Arkansas Supreme Court.


On Wednesday, Wood called the motion to quash the warrant “frivolous and without a scintilla of merit,” and ruled that Winningham should return to or not charge Johnston any fees associated with “preparing or defending the frivolous argument,” before imposing Rule 11 sanctions for the filing of “an improper pleading” and ordering the hefty fine, payable to the county’s Victim Assistance Fund by Dec. 1, 2012 “to deter future conduct.”


“What further supports sanctions is that fact the counsel for the defense spent years as a prosecutor,” Wood said. “It is inexcusable for defense counsel to contend he did not know a well-established law.”

Wood gave Winningham 21 days to withdraw his pleading to void the sanctions, and said should he desire to be heard on the issue of sanctions “the court will give him the opportunity” at the next pretrial hearing, scheduled for Nov. 30.


Wood concluded by saying that if she is presented with an arrest warrant supported by law, it is her duty to sign it.


“I have signed arrest warrants for criminal division cases for six years and it’s never taken lightly,” Wood said.


Following the hearing, Winningham said he is unlikely to withdraw the motion, citing his confidence on the grounds for which the motion was filed.


“I never file a motion that I don't believe in,” Winningham said.


Johnston’s trial is set for Dec. 6-7.


(Megan Reynolds is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1277 or by e-mail at megan.reynolds@thecabin.net. To comment on this story and others, visit www.thecabin.net.)

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