Marion County, Arkansas, road funds used to pay off judge's legal fees

MARION COUNTY, Ark. - In a Facebook post this weekend, the Marion County judge who distributes the road budget, said the Justices of the Peace won't give him any more money.

The justices of the peace decide the budget, and some of them said the judge is misusing the money.

The fight over the money starts with Marion County Judge Terry Ott.
He used taxpayer money budgeted for county roads to pay his lawyer bills..

Judge Ott said, "I'm not going to pay a dime because I'm not guilty that's the point. You can make accusations but you need to get your facts straight."

The facts are this: Ott was fined $250 by the Arkansas Ethics Commission back in 2016.

It claims Ott violated a state code, when he hired the former county road foreman's personal company to deliver dirt to the fairgrounds. In return the commission says that road foreman wrote checks to Ott's wife and sister in law for $250 each for dirt.

Wayne Templet was the one who filed that ethics complaint. He said, "I saw the trucks hauling the gravel myself. And people started calling me."

Ott said, "The facts that have been stated, part of the facts are true. But what they're talking about they have no idea. That's why I'm contesting this."

And the judge is using county funds to do it. For the last two years, Judge Ott has so far spent $30,000 of road department funds to pay a law firm in Little Rock to fight the $250 fine.

Judge Ott said, "Let's say you pay the $100 fine. They will tell you that you're not possibly guilty, but it goes on your permanent record with the state forever. In other words it leaves the impression yeah I did it I can get out of this for $100."

Documents show the judge line-item-transferred thousands into the road department's special legal fund since 2016.

Now the judge is saying he's low on road department funds and needs more money to fix the roads and keep them clear in the winter.

At the last quorum court meeting the judge was asking the justices of the peace for $150,000 more for the road department. The justices of the peace said they already gave $350,000 more to the road department budget this year than last year.

*UPDATE: At the meeting in November JP Carl McBee at the November meeting showed documentation that actually showed close to $150,000 less in the road department this year compared to last year.

Justice of the Peace Mike Scrima said, "People are coming to the meetings complaining about the roads, and they're being told that there's no money in the road department, yet the county judge spends $25,000 to defend a $250 fine. That just doesn't make sense to myself. And I think some of the JPs when the question come up for more money, they were saying no."

People who live on country roads are hearing the same thing.

Charlie Itzig, who lives off county road 7006 said, "That's always the reason they give us that they can't go out and fix the road is there's no more money, and yet they do spend money otherwise on various and sundry other projects."

Templet said that's the reason he filed the ethics complaint in the first place. He’s upset his own road hasn’t been fixed in years and questions where the money is going.

Templet said, "It'd be great if it went to any road in the county."

Ott said he's within his right as county judge to use road department funds to fight the ethics complaint. I spoke with a lawyer at the Association of Arkansas Counties, and he agrees. It’s legal.

Ott said, "Those are going to keep coming. You could ruin any public official because you have to fight those with attorney fees."

But starting in January, he will no longer have access to those road funds. since he lost his seat in the primary election.

Scrima said, "It's not his money. It's your money. It's the people's money and they should really be the ones screaming. And they spoke loud and clear this May, and that's the end of the story right there."

Judge Ott said the ruling on his appeal should come out in December.

It's unclear if the judge will use more county funds to pay lawyer fees in November or December. But his last payment in October said it was for the completion of the ethics appeal.