LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A former Arkansas judge admitted Thursday that for years he gave lighter sentences to men guilty of minor crimes in return for nude photographs and sexual favors, in a misconduct case that a top legal discipline official called one of the worst in state history.
Joseph Boeckmann had been set for trial this month but pleaded guilty to wire fraud and witness tampering. Under terms of a plea bargain, he would face at least 2½ years in prison, though U.S District Judge Kristine Baker isn't required to go along with that sentence. Federal prosecutors said they would drop 19 other charges after Boeckmann's sentencing, which will likely occur in 2018.
Boeckmann spoke only briefly during Thursday's hearing. "Yes, ma'am," he said after a series of four questions on whether he understood the deal and agreed to be bound by it. He told the judge later that he was pleading guilty because he was guilty.
He and lawyer Jeff Rosenzweig declined comment outside court. Baker said Boeckmann could remain free pending sentencing, though he still must stay away from Wynne, where he held court in eastern Arkansas until last year.
The 71-year-old's raised right hand shook as he swore to answer questions truthfully. He carried a cane, though he didn't always use it.
As a district court judge in Cross County, 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Little Rock, Boeckmann mainly handled lower-level offenses such as traffic tickets and misdemeanors. Dozens of men who had passed through his court accused the judge of misconduct dating to his time as a prosecutor decades ago. Some said they posed nude in exchange for money to pay their fines.
Attorney Peter Halpern of the U.S. Department of Justice told Baker that Boeckmann had arranged for a third party to threaten a man who had complained about the abuse to state investigators. Boeckmann admitted doing so Thursday.
According to Halpern, Boeckmann would typically offer men a sentence of "community service" in lieu of court fines and fees — picking up bottles and cans while Boeckmann took photographs. An investigation by The Associated Press into court and law enforcement records last year showed that of the 254 men Boeckmann sentenced to community service over a seven-year period in one of three districts he oversaw, just 13 of the cases included timesheets and court records showing completion of the sentences.
Prosecutors said the judge committed fraud by "corruptly using his official position as an Arkansas district judge to obtain personal services, sexual contact and the opportunity to view and to photograph in compromising positions" men who appeared before him in court, at times communicating across state lines. He later falsely said the defendants had satisfied their obligations.
The head of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, David Sachar, has called the allegations among the worst cases of judicial misconduct in state history. Sachar did not return telephone calls seeking comment.