Top 10 Online Stories of 2013: Fraud, Development, Paula Deen Attract Reader Attention

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 12:00 am  

Arkansas Business’ Oct. 14 cover story detailing a long-running, $15 million Medicaid fraud by a Mountain Home doctor was the most-read story online in 2013, according to traffic data from

Senior Editor Mark Friedman mined court documents and affidavits and interviewed the late doctor’s ex-wife to report for the first time evidence that Dr. Stacey Johnson, who died in 2013 at 63, had been over testing patients as far back as the mid-1980s.

Johnson died of natural causes in March before prosecutors could indict. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit in an attempt to seize the mansion now held by Johnson’s ex-wife. Cynthia Johnson ultimately paid $600,000 to settle the lawsuit and keep the property. She says she doesn’t believe the doctor committed fraud.

“I worked in the office for 28 years with him, and he did not overbill Medicare,” she told Friedman. “He didn’t even pay attention to what was being billed. He was simply the physician and he did what he felt was right for the patients.»


As is often the case, fraud was a common thread among Arkansas Business’ most-read stories this year. As such, two stories chronicling the legal troubles of former northwest Arkansas developer Brandon Barber entered the top 10 this year.

The most popular was former Northwest Arkansas Editor Chris Bahn’s in-depth cover story on Barber and the five co-defendants in a pair of schemes: one to inflate the value of real estate deals in order to get extra money out of First Federal Bank of Harrison, and another to hide Barber’s debts from creditors before and after he filed for bankruptcy protection.

Bahn’s story profiled each of the defendants, detailing their alleged misdeeds and their connections to Barber. And for the first time, Arkansas Business was able to reveal an unnamed conspirator who didn’t live to be indicted: Gary Combs, another northwest Arkansas developer, who investigators say participated in the scheme to defraud First Federal Bank. Combs died in 2012.

The other story, No. 8 on the list of the year’s biggest traffic generators, was a March 20 report on Barber’s initial arrest in New York City and the multi-count indictments against him and his surviving co-conspirators.

The other most-read fraud story of 2013 was based on Senior Editor George Waldon’s interview with banker Layton “Scooter” Stuart, conducted prior to Stuart’s death on March 26.

Waldon had been digging into Stuart’s troubles at One Bank & Trust for months before Arkansas Business published portions of the interview in a cover story in August. The story revealed that Stuart believed he knew who had tipped off the federal regulators who ultimately removed Stuart from the helm of the bank he owned: former One Bank COO Michael Heald and Thinc Marketing Group President Tom Ricciardone.

Neither Heald nor Ricciardone would comment for the story. But the comments from Stuart, revealed months after his death from natural causes, added new layers to a story of embezzlement and self-dealings that continues to unravel.

Bank Intrigue

One element of another of the year’s top banking stories, the auction of Metropolitan National Bank of Little Rock, squeezed into the top 10: Waldon’s account of bank testimony at a July 26 bankruptcy hearing by Susie Smith, Metropolitan’s senior executive vice president, COO and CFO.

The story recounts the battle to save the $991 million-asset bank before its holding company, Rogers Bancshares Inc., filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy to facilitate the sale of Metropolitan.

“Throughout the bank, we were all very scared, from top down to a teller level,” Smith said of the financial crisis that peaked in 2009 and caused irreclaimable losses at the bank.

The story came ahead of a historic bankruptcy auction that saw Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff emerge as the new owner of Metropolitan assets.

Big Deals, Controversy & TV

Other stories rounded out the top 10:

• A “Whispers Blog” post about Paula Deen fans who took to Wal-Mart’s Facebook page to defend the besieged TV chef attracted its share of attention. Deen fans were unhappy after the world’s largest retailer said it was ending its merchandising relationship with Deen, who was accused of using a racial slur, and filled Wal-Mart’s Facebook page with comments in her defense. Deen supporters (and critics) were nearly as vocal on, leaving almost 200 comments and sharing the item on social media. The viral blog post was the second most-read story of the year.

• Another story that generated traffic far beyond the usual audience was Editor Gwen Moritz’s apology for her ill-considered — and widely misunderstood — decision to protest the Legislature’s decision to amend the state Freedom of Information Act by releasing the last legally obtained list of Arkansans licensed to carry concealed weapons. The apology, titled “My Learning Curve,” was No. 5 on the most-read list.

• Arkansas Business’ report on the Big River Steel announcement was also a hit with readers eager for word on the 500 jobs headed to the depressed Arkansas Delta. Interest continued as the Legislature debated, and ultimately approved, a first-of-its-kind incentive package to jump-start the $1.1 billion project.

• At No. 9 was former Assistant Editor Kate Knable’s report on the layoffs of about 30 people at two Little Rock television stations, KARK-TV, Channel 4, and KLRT-TV, Channel 16, which came in the wake of Mission Broadcasting’s purchase of KLRT. The move came as KARK owner Nexstar Broadcasting, which owns Mission, consolidated operations with KLRT.

10 Most Read Stories Online
Jan. 1-Dec.17, 2013

1. Late Mountain Home Doctor May Have Crafted Largest Medicaid Fraud in State’s History - Mark Friedman
2. Paula Deen Supporters Take to Wal-Mart’s Facebook Page - Lance Turner
3. Inside the Brandon Barber Case: Looking at His 5 Co-Defendants - Chris Bahn
4. Big River Steel Announces $1.1B Mill for Osceola, Will Employ 525 - Mark Carter and Lance Turner
5. My Learning Curve - Gwen Moritz
6. The 13 Most Expensive Home Sales in Pulaski County in 2012 - Mark Friedman
7. One Bank’s Scooter Stuart Thought He Knew Who Blew the Whistle - George Waldon
8. Brandon Barber, 4 Others Indicted for Fraud, Money Laundering - Lance Turner and Gwen Moritz
9. Almost 30 Lose Jobs at KARK, KLRT as TV Owners Consolidate - Kate Knable
10. Susie Smith Recounts Trials, Tribulations at Metropolitan National Bank - George Waldon



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