Bombshell of a story this morning from Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who has on hand for the bond hearing in Springfield, Mo., Friday for indicted lobbyist and former healthcare company executive Rusty Cranford.
During the bond hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Mohlhenrich said that Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank’ Wilkins IV gave a statement to FBI agents Feb. 22, the day after Cranford was indicted, that he’d taken $100,000 in bribes from Cranford when Wilkins was a Democratic state legislator between 2011 and 2015. The bribes were ostensibly gifts to a church Wilkins pastored, St. James United Methodist in Pine Bluff. The gifts are memorialized in a plaque posted at the church. Wilkins directed at least one $50,000 state grant to a Monticello behavior health center operated by the company for which Cranford worked.
The U.S. attorney was arguing against bail because he said Cranford had tried to get others, including Wilkins, to lie to investigators and also had talked with a confidential informant about killing a co-conspirator, a political consultant, who’s pleaded guilty.
Thompson of the D-G was unable to get a comment from Wilkins, who’s been charged with no crimes.
It’s not Cranford’s first link to illicit behavior with legislators. He’s mentioned, but not charged, in the scheme alleging kickbacks from the state surplus account known as the General Improvement Fund that produced a guilty plea from former Republican Rep. Micah Neal and a pending criminal charge against Republican Sen. Jon Woods. Former Democratic Rep. Eddie Cooper, who went to work for Preferred Family Health, the same multistate health care provider that once employed Cranford, has also pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme that provided kickbacks to insiders and sent illegal contributions to legislators at the state and federal level.
Documents on file in the case note that Cranford’s severance from Preferred Healthcare included a deposit of $400,000 into his lawyer’s trust account and agreement to pay off or forgive $200,000 in debts. Since this story has broken, three other executives of Preferred Health have been fired. A Springfield, Mo., accountant accused of embezzlement related to the company has died from a reported suicide.
Cranford’s attorney insisted in court the $400,000 wasn’t a legal defense fund. He also said the government had cooked up an implausible murder-for-hire allegation and other charges to press Cranford into testifying, something he apparently has been unwilling to do.
It would now appear at least three legislators are prepared to swear under oath to lobbying activities that involve payment to legislators.
I’ve been told for weeks that there are more to come.
Last week, a lawyer with knowledge of Wilkins’ involvement with Cranford, predicted disclosures soon. He said there were reports of numerous legislators who’d made “proffers” — or sworn accounts of what they’d be willing to say in court — to federal investigators. He said as many as 20 legislators could be involved.
Let’s now say this: Every incident in which Rusty Cranford or his company figured in a state distribution of GIF money has to be viewed in light of Hank Wilkins, Micah Neal, Jon Woods and Eddie Cooper. Association is not proof of illegal activity, but it carries an aroma. There are dozens of legislators with such associations. The money sent to Ecclesia College in Springdale alone had many legislative backers. The Arkansas Times has been howling about that money for years. Why was a tiny Christian college getting hundreds of thousands in tax money when state institutions numerous legislators represented got nothing? Perhaps it was just Jon Woods’ charm that brought others on board. His charitable interest in Ecclesia knew no bounds. He passed a bill to authorize higher education department money to be channeled to Ecclesia, whose president, a friend of Woods, also has been indicted. (It didn’t come to pass.) He talked at one point of having medical marijuana tax revenue dedicated to Ecclesia, but that idea, fortunately, didn’t make the ballot measure.
The wait for the drop of more “proffers” should be interesting and, for some, perhaps uncomfortable.
I know one political candidate this spring who’s challenging a sitting legislator who helped guide GIF money to applications backed by Rusty Cranford. That challenger has rounded up court evidence on those arrangements and plans to ask questions of the incumbent about them. Let a hundred such inquiries bloom.
Other questions, too, should be raised about legislators and friends and family who’ve gotten into the “consulting” business in recent years. It’s long been believed that certain consultants could be productive on controversial matters before legislative committees whose members included legislators with consulting businesses themselves or friends or family in the consulting business.
The Wilkins’ disclosure, on top of what was already known, is evidence of a breathtaking amount of corruption, an amount so broad and so institutionalized that it’s hard to believe even straight legislators didn’t have some indication something was rotten.
How does this happen? Big money. Preferred Family Health, or related entities with different names, have received almost $1 billion in recent years in Medicaid funding in Oklahoma, Missouri
A frogmarch to
Cranford has pleaded innocent to the charges he currently faces, but prosecutors have said he faces continuing investigations in both the western and eastern districts of Arkansas for misuse of public money.
This story unfolds on top of the unrelated but reminiscent scandal in which the nursing home industry stacked up contributions to elect judges, including Mike Maggio, who pleaded guilty to taking those contributions in return for reducing a $5.2 million judgment in a nursing home negligence case. Nobody else was charged, but that money was facilitated by a former Republican senator, Gilbert Baker. Baker and another former Republican senator, Michael Lamoureux, were paid hefty outside salaries as legislators working for a special interest group whose interests happened to align with those of the legislators. Nobody has been charged with a crime in any of this. Criminality isn’t a prerequisite for
Oh,and let us not forget Jake Files,a Republican senator who has admitted pilfering GIF money for himself as he ran a construction business into the ground and stiffed Fort Smith on a big park project.