On August 17, Former FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario signed a plea agreement in which he admitted to paying a business to permanently erase data from his hard drive so that forensic examiners could not analyze its contents. The wiped data was relevant to the corruption trial of former Arkansas State Senator Jon Woods, who was convicted of mail and wire fraud in 2018.
Cessario admitted in the plea agreement that he had erased the contents of the hard drive while being fully aware that a court had ordered the laptop to be submitted to an FBI field office in Little Rock for forensic examination. Also in the plea agreement, Cessario admitted that he intended to make “the contents of the computer’s hard unavailable for forensic examination.”
In addition, the former FBI special agent stated that he knew “the contents of the hard drive were relevant to an official proceeding, that is, Cause No. 5:17-CR-50010, United States v. Woods et al.”
According to KATV, Cessario was facing charges of “corrupt destruction of record in an official proceeding.” He could face up to 20 years in federal prison.
Woods was charged after former state Rep. Micah Neal secretly recorded conversations with Woods in hopes of aiding investigators and lightening the sentence for his own financial crimes. The former state rep. used an audio recorder to tape conversations between he and Woods, which were referenced in the latter’s trial. Neal ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud on Jan 4, 2017.
Cessario, who later made copies of the audio recordings, reportedly provided the court only 39 of Neal’s 119 audio files ahead of the trial. When asked to provide the remainder of the recordings, as significant gaps were apparent, the former FBI special agent took the laptop they were stored on to a computer repair shop. From there, he paid to have the hard drive wiped, and later performed a second wipe himself.
Court documents indicate that Cessario’s texts revealed his bias ahead of the trial. In one text, he told Shane Wilkinson, former Arkansas Rep. Micah Neal’s counsel, that the trial would be “hilarious.” In another, he claimed that Woods was a “true narcissist.”
In addition to documented bias and destruction of evidence, there was a potential conflict of interest in the Woods trial itself. Cessario, who interviewed woods in November 2015, had previously been represented by the attorney who represented the former state senator, W.H. Taylor, Esq. A year before the trial, Taylor represented Cessario in the former agent’s divorce proceedings.
Taylor reportedly instructed Woods to meet with Cessario without a legal representative present on numerous occasions.
This conflict of interest was known in 2018, prompting Judge Timothy Brooks to ask: “Can a zealous and effective defense be expected of the shepherd when the wolf appears in sheep’s clothing? The course of events certainly raises the appearance of impropriety.”
Woods was ultimately sentenced to 18 years in prison, where he remains despite Cessario’s guilty verdict.