Conner Eldridge said Tuesday (Aug 11) that he is stepping down as U.S. Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas effective Aug. 21. It has been widely rumored that he is preparing to run in 2016 as a Democrat for U.S. Senate against U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., but Eldridge offered no reasons for his leaving the office he has held since December 2010.
Boozman, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 in a win over incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has said he will seek re-election to a second term. Boozman was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in 2002. He served as Arkansas’ 3rd District Congressman until he was elected to the Senate.
“I am extremely proud of the work we have done to make communities throughout Arkansas safer places to live. We have focused on prosecuting those who bring crime and violence onto streets across our state, threaten our children, and defraud hard-working Arkansans,” Eldridge said in a statement. “I am confident that work has made a difference. It has been a privilege to stand alongside law enforcement, prosecutors, and community leaders to confront crime and to work to make sure that we create an environment that gives all kids in our state a chance to succeed.”
Kenneth Elser, Eldridge’s First Assistant U.S. Attorney, will serve as acting United States Attorney upon Eldridge’s departure.
In the statement, Eldridge listed what he considered the highlights of his tenure. Those include:
• Prioritizing crimes that have an effect on children, including cases involving sexual abuse of children and child pornography, human trafficking, and violent crime;
• During his tenure, the office prosecuted 120 defendants that committed crimes involving children;
• Leading the prosecution of numerous large-scale, violent drug trafficking organizations, violent crimes resulting in serious injury or death, and crimes involving fraud that resulted in significant financial losses to a large number of individuals and institutions;
• In his first year, securing the first convictions in the nation under the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act for a violent, life-threatening incident in Alpena, Ark., that resulted in serious physical injury to five individuals; and
• Focused on prosecuting public corruption, bringing cases against a county judge and county treasurer for bribery and theft of public funds.
Eldridge has also served as the co-chair of the national Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee which works to coordinate between law enforcement agencies on threats of domestic terrorism.
Eldridge was just 33 when he was sworn in as prosecuting attorney, and his background includes working with prominent politicians and law firms. He also worked a brief stint as CEO of a bank.
William Conner Eldridge Jr. was born in Fayetteville in 1977. He lived in Augusta, Ark., through the sixth grade. Mary Tull and Bill Eldridge then moved the family to Lonoke, where Conner would complete high school. He graduated Davidson College – a private, Presbyterian institution in North Carolina – in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He earned his juris doctorate in 2003 from the Arkansas School of Law.
Following law school, Eldridge was a clerk for U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. He has interned for U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark. and worked on the senate campaign of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. He also worked with U.S. Rep. Marion Berry. Other short clerking stints include the Prosecuting Attorney for Washington County and the prominent law firms of Wright, Lindsey and Jennings, and Mitchell Williams.
Eldridge also worked as a special deputy prosecutor for the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
After marrying into the family (Whipple) with a controlling interest in Arkadelphia-based Summit Bancorp, Eldridge worked at Summit Bank and would become the bank’s CEO in 2008 – a year before being nominated by Democratic U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor for Western District Prosecutor.
Possibly the highest profile case he handled during his time as a federal prosecutor was that of former Northwest Arkansas developer Brandon Barber. Barber, once a high-profile and popular developer during the heady days of seemingly non-stop Northwest Arkansas commercial development, was arrested March 20, 2013, on several federal charges. Barber in July 2013 admitted guilt in various schemes to prop up his Northwest Arkansas real estate and development company between 2005 and 2009. The charges Barber plead guilty to included conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced in October 2014 to five years and five months in prison. The sentence was almost half of what Eldridge’s office sought. Based on possible reductions in the sentence and his time served, Barber’s sentence could fall to a little more than three years.
Eldridge told The City Wire in a story published earlier this year that one of the top goals of his office is to push back against child abuse in the 34-county district in which he operates. He recently launched the A-Chance program in western Arkansas that is aimed at helping children in violent and crime-ridden homes succeed in their school setting and in life. The program is modeled after one Eldridge heard about from another U.S. attorney in a neighboring state. The police working a domestic violence or crime scene in a home involving school age children will contact the children’s school officials by early the next morning with a “Handle with Care Notice.”
Replacing Eldridge is not likely to be a fast process. Eldridge, who began working in the office in December 2010 and was formally sworn in on March 18, 2011, filled a post that was vacant since Jan. 4, 2009, when former U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe resigned to serve in the Northwest Arkansas law offices of Mitchell Selig Gates & Woodyard. Balfe served as the U.S. Attorney since November 2004.
U.S. Sens. Boozman and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., will nominate to President Barack Obama a person for the job. The Obama administration will send that nomination or another name to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.