NWA editorial: What a disappointment

Guilty plea brings dishonor on state senator

Posted: February 3, 2018 at 1 a.m.

The Files family name has, for a long time, meant something respectable in Fort Smith and the surrounding area. It was a deserved reputation.

That helped get Jake Files elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1999. It played no small role in getting him elected to the state Senate in 2011. And, when Jake Files told city leaders in Fort Smith his construction company could deliver on building a public softball complex the town needed, the family reputation undoubtedly helped convince them he was the right person for the job.

What’s the point?

Sen. Jake Files entered guilty pleas to several felonies, confirming his abuse of the public trust.

He wasn't.

It's one thing to fall short on a civic project. That's a complication, it doesn't destroy one's respect for an individual. Most of us, after all, have begun something we couldn't finish on time or under budget or at all. Life goes on. Lessons learned.

But Jake Files didn't just make a mistake. The city devoted $1.6 million toward the park largely based on Files' pledges and who he was. They, basically, trust him. Eventually, the delays frustrated everyone. Then last Monday came, and people who wanted to believe better of the state senator had to accept a disappointing revision to their opinion.

On Monday, Files pleaded guilty to felony charges of wire fraud, money laundering and bank fraud related to pocketing state money -- taxpayer money -- he obtained to build the softball complex. He also pledged a forklift as collateral for a bank loan. The problem is, the forklift had once belonged to him, but he had already sold it to someone.

It was confirmation of what everyone had come to suspect: That this lawmaker had abused the trust placed in him by city leaders and, most of all, by the voters of his Senate District.

In August 2016, Files asked Fort Smith's administrator if the city would be interested in security a grant from Arkansas' General Improvement Fund to pay for work on the sports complex. As a lawmaker, Files had considerable influence over where that money would be spent. According to court documents, Files then faked three bids from contractors seeking to do the work, ensuring an employee from his company, FFH Construction LLC, was the low bidder.

Files, according to the investigation, directed that employee to make bank deposits of the $26,945.91 grant. He guided her through withdrawing $14,000 cash and nearly $11,000 in a cashier's check to his company. His employee said Files paid cash to his employees, who were waiting in a parking lot to be paid. Files paid the employee with the bank account what was termed a bonus, then deposited the check int a bank account in his name, according to the plea agreement he reached with federal prosecutors.

Files, who was chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, resigned his state office on Tuesday.

Last October, Files blasted city officials for an audit he said included "inconclusive information" and a failure of effort by city staff to "reach the truth."

On Monday, his plea revealed the truth. Beyond the dishonor it brings to Files personally, it's a stark disappointment for the many people who put their trust in him as a businessman and, particularly, as an Arkansas legislator.

The people of Sebastian County deserve better, and hopefully they can get it now that Files has stepped down.

This isn't the only public corruption case making news these days, sad to say. Is it too confusing to suggest we hope more cases follow, but only if there is a need for them? Corruption is a word that produces strong feelings, or should. We'd rather not have reason to have those feelings, but if more illegalities are taking place, we hope they're rooted out and prosecuted. Because Arkansans need to know the government meant to serve them isn't just creating opportunities for lawmakers to serve themselves.

Commentary on 02/03/2018