FAYETTEVILLE -- A former FBI agent who wiped the hard drive of his government-issued computer twice and put a high-profile public corruption case at risk pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday, the same day he was charged.
Agent Robert Cessario acted to alter, destroy and mutilate the computer's hard drive with the intent to impair its integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding, according to the criminal information filed by prosecutors. That proceeding was the federal prosecution of former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and others associated with Woods.
Cessario wiped the hard drive of a laptop he had used to gather and send electronic files to defense attorneys in several cases. He had the hard drive wiped professionally and then wiped it himself before turning it over to investigators after defense attorneys discovered he had not transferred all the files to them.
When asked why at a Jan. 25, 2018, court hearing in the Woods case, Cessario said he wiped the hard drive because he had used the computer to download personal medical records he didn't want disclosed.
Both U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks, who presided in Woods' case, and the U.S. attorney's office found Cessario's given reason for wiping the hard drive unbelievable.
"No, your honor," Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Jennen replied when Brooks asked him in another hearing Feb. 15, 2018, if Cessario's reasoning sounded credible. "That reason sounds like burning down a house because you don't like the drapes."
Cessario was charged Wednesday in U.S. District Court with one felony count of corrupt destruction of an object in an official proceeding. He waived indictment and pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors.
Cessario faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release. He will be sentenced at a later date, typically about three months in federal cases. The government will recommend a term of probation to be determined by a judge at the time of sentencing, contingent on Cessario demonstrating an acceptance of responsibility, according to the plea agreement filed Wednesday.
Under the agreement, the judge will determine and impose any fine, community service and term of home confinement he deems appropriate.
The agreement also says restitution may be ordered in the case and is "not limited to the offense of the conviction," but may also include restitution for all losses caused by Cessario's criminal conduct, even if those losses resulted from crimes not charged or admitted by Cessario on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes of the western district of Arkansas accepted Cessario's guilty plea. Assistant U.S. attorneys from the Eastern District of Texas were brought in to prosecute the case.
Cessario said during the Woods investigation, he obtained recordings from a cooperating defendant and placed those recordings on his government-issued computer, according to the factual basis for his guilty plea filed with the court.
"Questions arose in the case about when and in what manner I had obtained the recordings," according to Cessario. "Therefore, the court ordered that the computer be forensically examined by the FBI."
Cessario said on Dec. 4, 2017, before taking the computer for the court-ordered forensic examination, he paid a commercial computer business to wipe the hard drive and then wiped it again himself on Dec. 6, 2017.
"I erased the contents of the computer hard drive knowing that the court had ordered that the computer be submitted for a forensic examination. I did so with the intention of making the contents of the computer's hard drive unavailable for forensic examination," according to the document.
"At the time, I knew the contents of the hard drive were relevant to an official proceeding. I corruptly performed, and had performed, the erasures with the intent to impair the integrity and availability of the computer hard drive and its contents for use in that official proceeding."
Cessario was allowed to remain free on a $5,000 signature bond with conditions of release pending sentencing.
Documents filed in the case say Cessario's court appearance took just 19 minutes, which included being examined by the judge about the offense, arraignment, waiver of the indictment, entering his guilty plea and having bond set. He was represented by John Everett, a local attorney.
At Woods' public corruption trial, Brooks called Cessario's conduct as the lead investigator "reprehensible" during an unsuccessful defense request for a mistrial. The laptop's erasure was also a subject of unsuccessful appeals.
Brooks declined to toss the Woods indictment based on Cessario's action, citing U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals case law requiring proof misconduct be both malicious and cause definite harm to the defendants' right to a fair trial. Brooks ruled the government made an extensive and good-faith effort to provide to the defense what Cessario should have provided in the first place.
Brooks also prohibited the government from calling Cessario as a witness in the criminal cases.
The defense contended the full extent and import of Cessario's actions could not be judged from a blank hard drive.
"First time I have ever seen the Department of Justice undercharge anyone," quipped Chad Atwell, a defense attorney for Woods' co-defendant Randell Shelton Jr., in a text Wednesday about Cessario being charged. "Let's hope all future defendants are so fortunate."
Woods was accused of taking kickbacks in return for directing state grants to two nonprofit organizations. Shelton, a consultant and longtime friend of Woods, was accused of passing along some of the kickbacks through payments to his consulting company. Co-conspirators Micah Neal, a former state representative, and Oren Paris III pleaded guilty to related charges for accepting the ill-gotten gains.
The laptop became an issue when it was used to copy audio recordings the government said it never sought.
Neal, of Springdale, carried an audio recorder disguised as a pen during most of 2016. He was cooperating with the government and told investigators he was willing to wear a hidden recording device. Investigators declined, but Neal went ahead and recorded any conversation he thought might interest investigators. He said he hoped he could be of more value to the government and reduce his sentence. He pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017.
Cessario used his FBI laptop to make copies of the audio files after they were placed in a Dropbox file-sharing folder. He testified in a February court hearing he copied every file that was there and copied them to computer disc in November 2016. Copies of those recordings were turned over to the defense in April 2017.
According to court testimony, not all the files were in the Dropbox folder the day Cessario downloaded the files and then made his copies. Only 39 of at least 119 audio files made it to the defense. Recorded conversations specifically mentioned in texts from Neal's attorney to Cessario in 2016 were not there.
Atwell noticed audio files missing when some recordings referred to others that were not given to the defense.
On the web
Read the indictment at: nwaonline.com/818cessario/