- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

PINE BLUFF, Ark. (AP) - A special prosecutor said Friday that the state may reduce or drop some criminal charges against the Jefferson County clerk, who is accused of improperly giving raises to employees.

At a pre-trial hearing for Patricia Royal Johnson in Jefferson County Circuit Court, Special Prosecutor Jack McQuary said it’s possible that four felony theft of property charges could be reduced to misdemeanors or dropped from the list of charges against Johnson.

Johnson was charged in March with 10 counts of forgery, one count of abuse of public trust and four counts of felony theft of property between $5,000 and $25,000. The charges came after the Arkansas Legislative Audit reported that Johnson paid more than $60,000 in bonuses to employees without asking the Quorum Court, which is required by law.

McQuary said state auditors, who work all over Arkansas, have been hard to pin down for confirmation, but one auditor reached out to tell him there is a portion of state law that may “allow a variance in what county officials can pay to county employees.”

“I was unaware of that statute. I’ve got to try and find that statute, but I’ve told (Johnson’s attorney) all along that it very well may result in me either dropping the theft of property charges altogether or amending them. … It very may well change them from a felony to a misdemeanor,” he said.

McQuary said the state also offered to negotiate a plea deal with Johnson and her attorney Austin Porter, Jr., but they rejected the idea.

Porter said after the hearing Friday that he is confident Johnson will be cleared of the charges.

According to Johnson’s arrest warrant, the audit’s findings stemmed from “Christmas bonuses” handed out to clerk’s office employees between 2010 and 2013. An Arkansas State Police investigator reported in the warrant that Johnson had another employee falsify overtime hours for about nine employees, and Johnson approved the payments and sent them to the treasurer’s office.

Jefferson County has a policy that employees cannot earn over-time pay. Instead they earn compensatory time for any overtime worked.

The allegations said Johnson also had an employee fill out a revised election documents after they were due and backdate them.

Johnson is scheduled to have a jury trial starting Oct. 8. A special judge appointed to the case said he will hold a conference with Porter and McQuary on the final charges Oct. 2 and determine if the trial needs to be moved to a later date. The attorneys said Friday they plan to call as many as 30 witnesses.

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