US billionairess risks jail for her day in court

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THE SECOND richest woman in the United States, Alice Walton, has enough money to settle her drunken driving case millions of times over.

Instead, the heiress of America's leading Wal-Mart department store chain is challenging the charges with a public-relations expert and a team of attorneys who are prepared to call as many as 16 witnesses.

Deputy city attorney Gene Franco, of Little Rock, Ark-ansas, said: "It should be fairly interesting, that's about all I can say."

Ms Walton owns the investment banking firm Llama Co and was worth an estimated pounds 3.8bn last year. She is one of four children of the late Sam Walton and his wife, Helen - the richest woman in the US last year.

Judge Stanley Ludwig has cleared his caseload today to preside over Ms Walton's trial. He has also issued a gagging order, so that few of those involved can publicly talk about a case that includes one of the biggest names in Arkansas.

Ms Walton, 48, was charged on 27 January with driving while intoxicated and other traffic violations after her new vehicle careered off a road and destroyed a gas meter and telephone box. After being taken to a hospital with a broken nose, she told police she had had two glasses of wine at a company dinner and refused a blood- alcohol test.

A police report said that Ms Walton became belligerent, telling one officer: "You know who I am, don't you? You know my last name?"

City attorneys presented Ms Walton with a conventional plea offer. In exchange for pleading guilty, she would avoid jail and a 180-day suspension of her driver's license would be dropped. But she said no.

Ms Walton faces up to one year in jail and fines of up to pounds 680 if found guilty. "She believes she is innocent [of driving while intoxicated]," said Skip Rutherford, a public-relations executive working for Ms. Walton.