These aren’t good times for confidence in public servants.
A U.S. prosecutor in Missouri last week said that former legislator and current Jefferson County Judge Hank Wilkins had told the FBI he took $100,000 in bribes from a former powerhouse lobbyist, Rusty Cranford, who also doubled as a top executive of Preferred Family Healthcare, a Springdale-based nonprofit paid millions every year for mental health and other community-based services financed by Medicaid.
Cranford also was accused of talking about hiring a hit man to kill another political consultant who’s an accused accomplice.
Former Democratic state Rep. Eddie Cooper has pleaded guilty to being a player in the embezzlement as an employee of Preferred Healthcare.
Add the names to those of former Republican Rep. Micah Neal and former Republican Sen. Jon Woods. Neal has pleaded guilty and Woods awaits trial on charges that they got kickbacks from state General Improvement Fund money sent to a tiny Bible college in Springdale. That same indictment talked of efforts by Cranford to parcel off some GIF money for one of his enterprises with legislative help.
The Arkansas Times reported on other associations of lobbyist Cranford. Preferred Family Healthcare hired Sen. Linda Chesterfield as a “diversity consultant” in 2016. The previous year, she’d helped direct GIF money to one of Cranford’s affiliated agencies for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and gifts for the needy.
State Rep. Bob Ballinger asserted on Facebook that 2011 legislation that set a $100 annual fee on bail bondsmen went to a professional association that paid Cranford to be a lobbyist. He said a bipartisan group of legislators, including Wilkins, and Ballinger’s Republican primary foe, Sen. Bryan King, worked to preserve the special assessment until it was repealed in 2017.
In unrelated thievery, former Sen. Jake Files has pleaded guilty to taking a kickback from GIF money supposedly meant to help build a Fort Smith recreation facility.
Rumors of more indictments continue to circulate, but no criminal charges are necessary to know the General Improvement Fund pork barreling program was abused. Tax money was spent to pay for turkey dinners, high school athletic warmups, fireworks, vacant houses and other junk in the name of “economic development.”
This follows other recent scandals. The nursing home lobby bought friendly judges with campaign contributions, including at least one judge, now in prison, who took the contribution to mean he should reduce a nursing home negligence jury verdict by $4.2 million. The bagman for his money and the bankroller have not been charged. That bagman? Former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker. He once drew a handsome retainer from a conservative political lobby while serving in the Senate. After he left, Republican Sen. Michael Lamoureux picked up the lobby’s paychecks. Lamoureux also feathered his nest by drawing pay from a telephone company while passing legislation that put money in the company’s pocket. And who can forget Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, working for mattress and gambling machine sellers while looking after their interests in the legislature? Republican Rep. Andy Davis, a contender for House speaker, works for himself in the chamber, regularly handling legislation that affects his waste treatment plant business.
It is it any wonder the “real” work is so often dispiriting? The legislature last week finished completion of a budget that shorted public schools millions of what the Supreme Court’s sufficiency standard demands while preserving money for an income tax cut and highway construction and handing out a taxpayer subsidy to parents of private school students. Hog and chicken manure producers got protection. ATV riders were given free rein to endanger themselves and others on public highways.
Space prevents further recitations.