Where Cooper Meets Neal, Woods (Analysis)

Where Cooper Meets Neal, Woods (Analysis)

Like a Russian novel, overlapping federal criminal investigations in Missouri and Arkansas may need a cast of characters, and it's getting hard to identify either hero or victim.

The Missouri case that took down former Arkansas state Rep. Eddie Wayne Cooper on Monday is tangentially related to the federal investigation in Arkansas that resulted in the conviction of former state Rep. Micah Neal 13 months ago and the pending indictment against former state Sen. Jon Woods.

And the cases against Neal and Woods, Republicans from Springdale, are tangentially related to the case against Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, who resigned from the Arkansas House of Representatives after pleading guilty to three federal crimes two weeks ago.

Cooper, a Democrat from Melbourne, pleaded guilty Monday in Springfield, Missouri, to being part of a conspiracy to embezzle more than $4 million from his employer, a Missouri-based provider of mental health services currently known as Preferred Family Healthcare Inc. 

His plea agreement suggests a likely prison sentence of 33-41 months. 

Cooper admitted that he personally received more than $450,000 as part of a conspiracy that spanned more than seven years, starting when PFH was known as Alternative Opportunities Inc. (and doing business in Arkansas as Dayspring).

That was in addition to his wages as regional director for AO/PFH between April 2010, when he was still a legislator, and April 2017, which totaled $723,644.

Cooper is described in his plea agreement as "somewhere between being a minor and a minimal participant" in the conspiracy that included at least five other people, including the CEO, CFO and COO of AO. 

Another conspirator was Donald Andrew Jones, a New Jersey political operative who pleaded guilty to his part of the scheme in December

"This investigation is still continuing, and we have not reached the conclusion of the case," said Don Ledford, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri.

According to Cooper's plea agreement, prosecutors will ask the court to require him to forfeit his gains from the conspiracy to the federal government, and he will also be on the hook for separate restitution. That's because, AO/PFH "received funding almost exclusively from Federal and state entities" and "AO and PFH, by and through its executives named in the information, engaged in substantial activities that were illegal and contrary to public policy..."

The forfeited money will be prorated back to the states in which AO/PFH operated — Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma — based on their contribution to the nonprofit's revenue during the course of the conspiracy.

The Cranford Connection

Another of the conspirators, called Person #4 by Missouri prosecutors in both the Cooper and Jones cases, is described as a resident of Rogers, a registered lobbyist affiliated with two lobbying firms, and an employee of AO. Those identifiers match Milton R. "Rusty" Cranford, who was formerly CEO of AO's Arkansas operations and who is a registered lobbyist affiliated with The Cranford Coalition Inc. of Little Rock and Progressive Politics Inc. of Sherwood.

Most of the ill-gotten gains Cooper admitted receiving from his role in the Missouri conspiracy — at least $397,501 — came "from Lobbying Firm A both directly and indirectly." Lobbying Firm A appears to be The Cranford Coalition, where Cooper, whose term of office ended in January 2011, was registered as a lobbyist from 2012-15. The rest, at least $63,000, was described in his plea agreement as "kickbacks." 

Cranford has not been charged with any crime. However, he is also believed to be "Person A" in the Arkansas case against Neal. Neal admitted receiving a $20,000 kickback from Person A — allegedly through Woods — for steering public money from the state General Improvement Fund to a nonprofit affiliate of AO in 2013.

In the Missouri cases against Cooper and Jones, then, AO/PFH is positioned as the victim of an embezzlement conspiracy by top managers. In the Arkansas cases against Neal and Woods, AO is described as the payer of bribes in exchange for grants from the state GIF. 

Abuse of the General Improvement Fund was also a factor in the charges to which Files pleaded guilty late last month

The Sausage

Emails between the conspirators and lists of payments made by AO/PFH are described in detail in Cooper's plea agreement and in the information, which is the charge filed directly by the federal prosecutors in Missouri. Cooper waived his right to be indicted by a grand jury before pleading guilty, a strategy that can help him get the maximum reduction in his sentence for accepting responsibility for his crime. 

One email between AO executives referred to legislative attention to a Medicaid issue accomplished by "our very own Cooper," who was still a sitting representative. The emails also describe efforts to block state approval of new competition for Medicaid dollars for treating mental illness. 

In another email, Person #4 (Cranford) informed Cooper that AO had signed on as a client of Lobbying Firm A (The Cranford Coalition), but that Person #1 (the CFO of AO) "wants half the money … so there's no money in it for [Cooper]."

In October 2010, according to the evidence, Cooper also requested reimbursement from AO for a $500 donation to a political candidate and a receipt for $2,851 from a restaurant on the Arkansas side of Texarkana. Of that total "roughly half ... was spent on food and the other half on alcoholic beverages (115 separate drink items) and gratuity." 

Since AO was forbidden by law to engage in political activities, the CFO told Cranford to disguise the contribution and entertainment as a bill from The Cranford Coalition instead.

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