In separate orders filed last week in Faulkner County Circuit Court, Judge Rhonda Wood ordered the reassignment of a felony theft-of-property case against county Administrator Jeff Johnston to a new judge and vacated Rule 11 sanctions against Johnston’s attorney, Joe Don Winningham.
Johnston is accused of using county funds to apply asphalt to the driveway at his home in 2008, according to Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland. The amount of county funds used to pave the driveway totaled $3,859.54.
Hiland said the investigation began by the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office in November 2008 and was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2009. After nearly three years, no action was taken by federal agencies, and the case was returned to the state level.
In August, Wood, serving as 5th Division judge, signed a warrant for Johnston’s arrest after Judge Charles E. Clawson reportedly declined to sign it.
In 5th Division court, Wood primarily heard cases related to juveniles.
On Oct. 10, Wood fined Winningham $5,000 and ruled that he had violated Arkansas Rule 11 by filing a motion asserting she was not authorized to sign the warrant, and called the motion “frivolous and without a scintilla of merit.”
Wood gave Winningham 21 days to withdraw his pleading to void the sanctions, though Winningham refused.
Attorneys Jeff Rosenzweig and Frank Shaw, on behalf of Winningham, asserted that an administrative plan for the 20th Judicial District dictates that new filings in criminal cases not involving minors should be randomly assigned to either Clawson or Judge David Reynolds, and the case was never presented to Reynolds.
A November request by the attorneys to the Arkansas Supreme Court seeking the random reassignment of Johnston’s criminal case was denied.
In an order filed Dec. 21, Wood said the purpose of Rule 11 sanctions is to deter future “frivolous conduct ... (and) counsel has sufficiently been deterred from future conduct.”
“The media focus on this issue has shifted the focus away from the allegation of a crime and that the citizens of Faulkner County are possibly victims of theft,” Wood wrote in a Dec. 27 order. “I believe that whenever the focus shifts from the litigants to the court, justice is not being served.”
“The realistic result is my inability to ultimately hear the case prior to leaving the circuit bench for the appellate bench.”
Johnston has pleaded innocent to the allegations. A pretrial hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Jan. 16.
(Megan Reynolds is a staff writer and can be reached by phone at 505-1277 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @LCDonline.)