A former FBI agent is requesting that an Arkansas federal judge give him a year of probation after he pleaded guilty to destroying evidence while investigating a corruption case against Republican Arkansas State Sen. Jon Woods.
In August, the Department of Justice announced former FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario pleaded guilty in the Western District of Arkansas to erasing the contents of his government computer hard drive. Cessario was one of the agents who investigated Woods, who was convicted on 15 corruption-related charges and was sentenced to more than 18 years in federal prison in 2018.
The charge that Cessario pled guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. As part of the plea deal, Cessario’s defense team and the prosecution have both requested he receives probation. Cessario suggested the probationary period should be for one year.
A judge will ultimately determine Cessario’s sentence in court on Thursday. Both Cessario’s team and federal prosecutors estimated the sentencing hearing should take about an hour, with neither side planning to call witnesses or present testimony.
Cessario’s plea agreement states that he obtained recordings from a cooperating defendant as part of the federal prosecution against Woods in a corruption and money laundering case.
As questions arose in the case about how Cessario had obtained the audio recordings, the court ordered Cessario to submit his computer for a forensic examination on or about Dec. 4, 2017. Before submitting his computer to the forensic examination, Cessario instead took the device to a commercial computer business and paid the business to erase the contents of his computer’s hard drive.
Prosecutors Say They Found No Reason Why FBI Agent ‘Wiped’ Computer
Though Cessario had the contents of his computer erased during the case against Woods, he had originally claimed he only intended to remove personal information about his family from the work device.
Even the federal prosecutors seeking to convict Woods said they were not convinced by Cessario’s reasoning for having his computer hard drive wiped clean. In February of 2018, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Jennen said Cessario’s reason for wiping his computer hard drive “sounds like burning down a house because you don’t like the drapes.”
In their case against Cessario, prosecutors ultimately said they have “no evidence suggesting that the defendant had any reason for wiping the computer other than his expressed one, which was to remove sensitive personal and family information on the computer, or the defendant had any motive to impede the public corruption prosecution grander than making one piece of evidence, the computer, unavailable for use in the prosecution.”
Prosecutors said that because they found no additional motive behind Cessario’s decision to wipe his computer, they concluded that a sentence of probation would be an appropriate punishment.
Demonstrators Call For Harsher Sentence
40/29 News reported a group of demonstrators gathered outside the Arkansas federal courthouse on Tuesday to protest Cessario’s proposed sentence and request a harsher sentence for the former FBI agent.
“What is appalling to us as citizens for justice is that he’s asking for one-year unsupervised probation, that is appalling to me,” protester Connie Davies told 40/29 News.
“Robert Cessario is a law enforcement officer in the United States that has a lot of power to do a lot of damage to people’s lives, so he is held to account also for supporting the law of the land and making sure that true justice is rendered to all the citizens that he has anything to do with.”
Woods Unable to Get Fresh Trial
Woods has been seeking a new trial since his conviction in 2018. He filed his first appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, requesting that the case be overturned over Cessario’s misconduct.
In an Oct. 16, 2020 ruling, the circuit court dismissed Woods’ request for an appeal. The court ruled that the destroyed evidence “lacked exculpatory value and the information was available by other means.”
Woods filed another appeal in April of 2022, but the Eight Circuit court again denied his appeal, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported at the time.