Alonza Jiles (left) and Ted Suhl Brian Chilson

A group of Arkansas legislators held a press conference at the state Capitol Thursday to renew calls for Alonza Jiles to step down from the state Board of Corrections. 

Jiles is one of several defendants being sued by dozens of anonymous plaintiffs who say he helped cover up decades of child sexual abuse while working as a senior administrator at the Lord’s Ranch, a now-closed behavioral health facility in northeast Arkansas. The Lord’s Ranch shut down in 2016 after its executive director, Ted Suhl, was convicted of bribing a state Medicaid official and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Suhl is a friend of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who successfully lobbied then-President Trump to set Suhl free from prison halfway through his sentence.


Gov. Sarah Sanders, Huckabee’s daughter, is now locked in a political struggle with the Board of Corrections, and Jiles is among the board members who have defied her wishes. Last week, she called for his resignation. But if the recent lawsuits look bad for Jiles, they look terrible for his former boss, Ted Suhl. They say, for example, that Suhl and his family “made an intentional, fully conscious decision to allow staff members … to rape and sexually molest male children under their care.” If the claims in the lawsuits are true, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump would be responsible for commuting the sentence of a person who abetted child abuse.

Jiles himself was first appointed to the state corrections board by Huckabee in 2006, perhaps on the basis of the then-governor’s ties to Suhl. (He left the board in 2010, then was appointed again by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2022.) As writer Warwick Sabin documented in a story for the Arkansas Times that year, the close connections between Huckabee and Suhl were controversial at the time. On at least one occasion, Huckabee and his family — including his daughter, Sarah — hitched a ride on Suhl’s private plane to a political event out of state. And Huckabee appointed Suhl to serve on a state licensing board with oversight of youth facilities — such as the Lord’s Ranch.


That context helps explain the measured way Republican lawmakers framed their calls today for Jiles’ resignation today, focusing less on the  abuse allegations themselves than the idea that Jiles will be so “distracted” by the lawsuits that he can’t perform his official duties.

“We all have an appreciation that in the United States of America and Arkansas you are innocent until proven guilty,” Senate President Pro Tem Bart Hester said. “That’s not what this conversation is about. This conversation is about a Board of Corrections member who has lost public trust. Five lawsuits, over 50 people with significant, serious allegations are a real distraction from the work that needs to be done.”


That’s a shift in tone from the letter Bart Hester wrote two weeks ago, in which he said the “details of abuse and neglect” described in the Lord’s Ranch lawsuits were “too graphic for me to repeat.” Jiles was accused of “enabling and concealing heinous acts of child sexual abuse while working at ‘The Lord’s Ranch’ Residential Childcare Facility,” Hester noted at the time. His continued service on a state board would be “insulting to those he is alleged to have harmed,” Hester’s letter said.

Several legislators said Thursday that Jiles hasn’t returned their phone calls — a sign he’s not doing his job, they said. Sen. Blake Johnson, the GOP majority leader, said lawmakers “appreciate [Jiles’] work, but the public trust is a matter that we all take seriously.” Sen. Ben Gilmore, the lead sponsor of a prison-and-parole overhaul bill passed last spring, said Jiles’ presence on the corrections board distract from making the reforms required by the legislation.


The governor has framed things similarly: “The accusations against Alonza Jiles are concerning and a distraction from his work and the work of the Board of Corrections,” Sanders said in a statement last week. “I am calling on Mr. Jiles to resign from his post and allow our state to fully focus on improving community safety and ending the revolving door in our prisons.”

The messaging today from Republican lawmakers sounds as if it’s an effort to get on the same page as the governor. We’ve previously asked legislators and the governor’s office whether they think the allegations against Jiles — and by extension, Ted Suhl — have merit, and have gotten no response.


Jiles himself has rejected calls to step down, saying the allegations against him are false. Efforts to force him to resign are “yet another attack” against the independence of the Board of Corrections, he’s said.

Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness, who’s emerged as Sanders’ principal antagonist in the ongoing dispute, said in a statement today that Jiles shouldn’t be “punished” without getting his day in court. “Some are working overtime to deprive him of that right by trying to force him to resign,” Magness said.


When a person at the press conference today asked lawmakers Thursday why they didn’t object to Jiles appointment in 2022, they said they were unaware of the allegations against him until recently. It’s true that the new lawsuits alleging widespread sexual abuse at the Lord’s Ranch have only been filed in the last several months — but concerns about harsh treatment of children at the facility and other issues go back to the early ’90s. Sabin’s 2006 story in the Arkansas Times gives a history of the earliest allegations and the response from Suhl at the time:

Bud Suhl established the facility in the mid-1970s as a Christian school and rehabilitation center. (He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1995 that “the Lord’s Ranch incorporates a ‘Bible orientation’ into its program.”) Eventually Suhl registered the Lord’s Ranch as a non-profit organization and applied for licensing. The operation grew slowly over the years, accepting in-state and out-of-state referrals, most notably from state agencies in Illinois.

Then, in March 1990, the Arkansas Child Care Facilities Board voted to revoke the Lord’s Ranch license on the basis of 16 alleged violations, including the improper use of restraints on children and the falsification of records. Two months later, the board reversed its decision and gave the Lord’s Ranch an expanded provisional six-month license after it hired a retired state social worker as its social services director.

Less than four years later, the relationship between the Lord’s Ranch and the state deteriorated further, when in January 1994 the facility blocked inspectors from interviewing children in an abuse investigation. A report about the incident mentioned that Ted Suhl purchased two AR-15 assault rifles, two shotguns and several handguns on the same day the inspectors were barred from carrying out their duties.

Even after the Lord’s Ranch pledged to cooperate with inspections and restrict firearms on its property, the state cited further compliance violations in 1996.

But then something changed: Huckabee became governor in July 1996 when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned the office.