Embattled former Monticello District Judge Ken Harper is refuting charges filed last week by a state panel that disciplines judges.
Harper, who resigned the day before the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission announced that it had brought formal charges against him for alleged abuse of alcohol, says he resigned because of his meager $20,000 a year income rather than the commission’s actions the following day. “I didn’t know the other stuff was coming,” Harper said. “They never called me.”
The commission last year reprimanded and censured Harper after he pleaded guilty to DWI but agreed to take no further action if he abstained from alcohol and non-prescribed medications, agreed to undergo alcohol testing, and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during a compliance period ending January 1, 2013.
However, the commission alleged that Harper had not met the terms of the agreement, that he was seen intoxicated in public, was associating with known felons, and had allowed a convicted felon to purchase alcohol for him.
According to a state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission news release outlining the charges, Harper allowed Charles McKinley, a convicted felon and unlicensed driver, to use his vehicle to go to a liquor store to purchase alcohol for him in an effort to hide his drinking, then attempted to interfere with a State Trooper who was executing a traffic stop on McKinley. A video of the incident shows McKinley talking on the phone with someone McKinley indicated was Harper and that Harper wanted to speak to the trooper.
Harper told Seark Today that he and Charles McKinley had been friends for 19 years but he was not attempting to interfere with the traffic stop. He said he simply wanted to know where his vehicle was so that he could go get it to avoid it being towed.
Regarding the public intoxication allegation, Harper said he doesn’t know where that came from.
“They say that I was seen in public intoxicated but I don’t leave my back yard after 5 p.m.,” Harper said. “I don’t go out and I don’t go to parties. I have intentionally not gone out for a year now because if I go to a gathering and someone says they saw me intoxicated, how do you defend that?”
Asked about the family event at which he is alleged to have been intoxicated, Harper said “I can’t fathom somebody in my family saying I was intoxicated.”
He said he sometimes walks a half a block to the EZ Mart convenience store or the nearby Save A Lot grocery store (neither of which sell alcohol), and has gone to The River restaurant (which serves alcohol) to pick up food and has sat down inside the restaurant while waiting on his carry-out dinner. Except for those outings, Harper said he doesn’t leave his back yard after 5 p.m.
Dismissing with a joke the allegation that he had “moved in” with a female convicted felon, Harper said, “I have no clue where that came from but if I did, I hope she was cute.”
Harper said he believes the charges were politically motivated.
“I think it’s politics,” he said. “In my opinion, there are local and state politics involved in it and I’ll stand by that statement.” He declined to elaborate further.
The reason for his resignation, he says, did not stem from the charges.
He said the alcohol testing was costing him $55 for each test and he had to drive to Little Rock for counseling twice a month.
“If you are a practicing attorney you can’t do this job because it takes 35 to 40 hours a week and that doesn’t include all of the first appearance hearings I did,” Harper said. “I did 90 percent of the first appearances in Drew County and I sometimes did them for other counties in the 10th district but I didn’t mind — I always viewed it as a public service — but I’m not going to spend $2,500 a year out of my pocket to do 35 to 40 hours a week doing the public’s job, and then they file these bull(expletive deleted) charges.”
Harper said as a part-time district judge with a full-time case load making $20,000 a year he was the lowest paid district judge in the state.
“There are 17 district judges with smaller caseloads making $124,000 a year,” Harper said. “That’s more than six times what I was making.”
The state Supreme Court in the late 1990s or early 2000s made an effort to remedy that by creating a pilot judge program in which some of the part-time judges with heavy case loads would become full-time judges. They appointed a committee to look into it and were going to take an honest look at the case loads, then it changed, Harper said.
“The state wanted to combine Drew, Ashley and Bradley counties, and, as I understand it, that would have been the largest one-judge district (geographically) in the state,” Harper said.
That, he said, didn’t make much sense because if you had one judge for three counties, law enforcement officers would have to drive up to 60 miles (round trip) to get a warrant signed. So, they had a meeting to come up with a proposal that made more sense, he said.
“We agreed to propose one district judge in Ashley County and one to serve both Drew and Bradley counties, since Drew and Bradley are only 15 miles apart, and what happened, as I understand it, the committee looking into the pilot judge program blew it off,” Harper said. “As I understand what they want to do is take a portion of fines from all of Arkansas to pay the $124,000 salaries for the full-time district judges in north Arkansas. So basically, they’re sucking money out of us to pay for guys who are part of the political system. That’s what caused me to quit.”
Harper said one of the reasons he gave offenders the option to do community service was to benefit Drew County.
“When we fine somebody and they pay that fine you’re draining the local economy because it is going to the state to be distributed to the more populous areas,” Harper said. “If somebody gets a $130 speeding ticket here in Drew County, we keep about $30 and $100 goes to Conway (for example) to pave their streets and Little Rock turns its back on us and tells us to go to hell.”
He said he believes the north part of the state worked their deal at the exclusion of South Arkansas. “If you live south of Little Rock we should petition to become a colony of Louisiana because Little Rock is putting the screws to us,” he said.