Abtin Mehdizadegan Brian Chilson

The state Legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee met again Monday to review a topic that’s already consumed two lengthy committee meetings this month: The state Board of Corrections’ hiring of attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan to represent the board in two lawsuits pitting it against Gov. Sarah Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin.

On April 4 and 11, Republican legislators grilled corrections board members for hours over whether they’d followed public transparency and procurement laws in hiring Mehdizadegan. On Monday, the committee heard from one additional member, Alonza Jiles, and attempted to sanction the board. A motion by Sen. Jim Petty (R-Van Buren) aimed to preemptively block any contract with Mehdizadegan, declare the board had disregarded state law, and refer the matter to the state Department of Inspector General for further investigation. (The inspector general is a governor-appointed office tasked with preventing, detecting and investigating fraud and abuse within the government.)

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But Petty’s motion failed for lack of support, perhaps due to some members being absent. The Legislature is back in session tomorrow, and committee chair Rep. Mark Berry (R-Ozark) — who’s been highly critical of Mehdizadegan and the corrections board — said the committee will convene again tomorrow.

The corrections board has been embroiled in conflict with Sanders, Griffin and other state officials for months now, and the dispute over Mehdizadegan’s hiring is only one subplot among many. Jiles, the board member testifying Monday, is at the center of another. He’s one of several defendants being sued by dozens of anonymous plaintiffs who say he helped cover up child sexual abuse while working as a senior administrator at the Lord’s Ranch, a now-closed behavioral health facility in northeast Arkansas.

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Sanders, Griffin and some legislators have called on Jiles to resign over the allegations, though the politics of the situation are fraught for Arkansas Republicans: The former head of the Lord’s Ranch, Ted Suhl, is a close associate of Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and was released early from prison in 2019 thanks to a commutation from then-President Donald Trump. (He was serving a seven-year sentence for bribing a state medicaid official.) Suhl is also a defendant in the lawsuits and is accused of conspiring to conceal horrific acts of abuse for decades.

Though Jiles testified before legislators for almost half an hour today, no lawmaker attempted to bring up the Lord’s Ranch allegations. The questions (and his testimony) focused solely on the Board of Corrections contract issue.

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