Family ties and political connections matter a lot in a small state like Arkansas, as William Conner Eldridge Jr. must know. They helped make him the new top federal prosecutor for the Western District of Arkansas and, at age 33, apparently the youngest U.S. Attorney in the country.
A consummate networker, Eldridge — having already amassed a $15 million fortune working in his wife’s family businesses - seems bound for higher office. He even talks like a politician-in-waiting. “It’s very inspiring and rewarding and almost hard to describe what it means to serve in a position like this in your home state,” the former bank executive said in an interview with Main Justice, speaking about his new job as U.S. Attorney in Fort Smith.
The U.S. Attorney’s office that Eldridge now runs is something of an outpost. It has the third lightest caseload of the 94 federal prosecuting offices in the country, after the Eastern District of Oklahoma and Guam, according to the Justice Department’s Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. The district is so small it hasn’t built a web site.
Eldridge got the job through his deep Arkansas ties and political connections - and some luck, when another candidate dropped out.
Timber magnate Ross Whipple is Eldridge’s father-in-law and one of the ingredients in his success. Not long after Eldridge graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law (he got his undergraduate degree from Davidson College in North Carolina), he went to work as counsel both for Ross Whipple’s Horizon Timber Services and for the family’s banking interests.
In 2004, Whipple asked his son-in-law to work at Summit, a Whipple-owned local bank. Eldridge started out as vice president for credit administration and assistant general counsel, glided through various other positions and was chief executive of the bank from 2008 to 2010.
Ross Whipple is related to the late Jane Ross, a prominent philanthropist, who had extensive timber holdings in south Arkansas. Whipple sits on the board of the $88-million Ross Foundation, which gives generously to charities in Arkansas. Eldridge’s wife Mary Elizabeth — who is Whipple’s daughter — also works for the foundation.
After President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Democrats, announced their recommendations for the Western District U.S. Attorney position. Along with Eldridge, the senators recommended Shawn J. Johnson, an assistant attorney general in the Arkansas attorney general’s office; and Christopher D. Plumlee, then-chief of the criminal section in the Western District.
Eldridge seemed to have the inside track. He’d worked as Lincoln’s driver in her first Senate campaign in 1999, and his family had been selling tractors and farm implements in rural eastern Arkansas for four generations, alongside Lincoln’s rice-growing family. Eldridge had called seemingly every childhood and college friend he had, asking them to support his candidacy with the senators.
It also certainly didn’t hurt his prospects that Eldridge’s wife and her family donated a total of $18,000 to Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 2009 and 2010, when she was struggling in what would ultimately be an unsuccessful bid for re-election.
But in Washington, where Eldridge’s candidacy was vetted, he met a cool reception, according to people with knowledge of the process. Eldridge was very young and had never been a prosecutor.
In May 2009, someone who wasn’t recommended by the senators, state prosecutor Carlton Jones, mysteriously emerged as the leading candidate. Then the chief deputy prosecutor in Arkansas’s Miller and Lafayette counties, Jones had initially been recommended as a federal judge, despite wanting the U.S. Attorney appointment.
As it turned out, Jones didn’t get the judgeship. His name was floated once again for U.S. Attorney, but the slow nomination process caused him to withdraw from consideration in February 2010, after he met with Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington.
After Jones’s withdrawal, the FBI began vetting Eldridge. The other two candidates recommended by the senators don’t appear to have been seriously considered, even though one of them — Plumlee — had been a career prosecutor.
Eldridge, meanwhile, filled in the blank on his resume. He took a job as a special deputy prosecutor in Clark County, a post with a slightly misleading title. The term “special deputy prosecutor” means volunteer, according to Clark County Prosecutor Blake Batson. While in that post, Eldridge also continued to serve as chief executive for the Whipple-owned Summit bank.
“Conner is just a natural,” Batson said. “I observed him many, many times at trial and watched his style and his demeanor and his abilities. I’ve just always been impressed with him.”
Cases involving the physical and sexual abuse of children are among those that disturb him the most, Eldridge said in the interview, calling them the ones that “always motivated me to work hard” and try to “make a difference in the lives of those victims.”
Obama officially nominated Eldridge in September 2010 — a development that was no surprise, said Jay Barth, chairman of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College in Conway. “Personal connections matter enormously in this state because of its size,” Barth said.
But Eldridge’s inexperience wasn’t completely ignored by other Arkansans. “I did hear people saying things about his relative youth and questioning whether the family ties were at work,” Barth said, “but I think that happens when people feel like they were more deserving and didn’t make the list.”
Although he was never a federal prosecutor, Eldridge clerked for U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele of the Eastern District, an experience he described as invaluable. Eldridge also has been lauded by the newspaper Arkansas Business as being among the “Top 40 under 40,” and by the Arkansas law school as “Most Likely to Succeed in the Practice of Law.”
And what about the practice of politics? Does Eldridge have any ambitions in that direction? Not now, at least, he said.
Still, Barth noted, being a U.S. Attorney has often been a launch pad for elected office, as it was for Asa Hutchinson, later elected to Congress from Arkansas as a Republican; and for former George W. Bush White House aide Tim Griffin, who survived an uproar over his appointment as U.S. Attorney in Little Rock in 2006 to be elected to Congress last year. Federal prosecutors can get media attention, especially with high-profile cases — and it’s tough for rivals to paint them as soft on crime.
Confirmed by the Senate in December, Eldridge replaced Deborah J. Groom, who led the U.S. Attorney office after Bush-appointee Robert Balfe resigned in January 2009.