I hope you will join me in profound gratitude to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for paying Doug Thompson to attend a federal court hearing in Springfield, Missouri, on the afternoon of Friday, March 16. If he hadn’t been there, there’s no telling how long it would have been before we learned that Jefferson County Judge Hank Wilkins IV had confessed to the FBI that, in his previous role as a state legislator, he had accepted approximately $100,000 in bribes.
And the bribes were laundered through his Pine Bluff church.
This is an Opinion
Thompson’s story topped the front page the next morning. That was just four days after he blew my mind by reporting that the FBI believed Wilkins’ briber, lobbyist and mental health care executive Rusty Cranford, had tried to hire a hit man to kill a co-defendant in the embezzlement case that has him in custody in Springfield.
On Monday, Wilkins resigned as county judge.
I hope I never get accustomed to public officials being on the take, but it’s especially disheartening when they use religion as part of their rationalization. And I’m detecting a pattern.
Wilkins’ confession, including disguising the bribes as church donations, was part of the evidence federal prosecutors in Missouri presented to a federal magistrate considering whether Cranford should be released from jail pending trial for his role in a bribery and embezzlement scandal. (Cranford pleaded not guilty at the same hearing.) Thompson, reporting what a federal prosecutor told the judge, wrote that a plaque to honor Cranford’s contributions hangs on a wall at St. James United Methodist Church.
But federal prosecutors in Springfield later made clear that the plaque itself was part of a cover-up devised by Cranford to make his generous contributions look less suspicious.
Specifically, Cranford didn’t want to fall into the same trap as Ted Suhl, the former CEO of a Medicaid-funded residential treatment company. (In that way, he’s not very different from Cranford, who worked for a mental health provider known in Arkansas as Alternative Opportunities and Dayspring.)
Suhl similarly disguised his bribes as contributions to a church in West Memphis, which would then forward payoffs to Stephen Jones, a former legislator who was deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services when he was being bribed by Suhl. (Jones, who pleaded guilty, has completed his prison sentence. Suhl, convicted by a jury, is a guest of the federal Bureau of Prisons — at Springfield, in fact.)
But laundering money through churches isn’t the only way Jesus has been used as a cover for public corruption — even if you consider Ecclesia College in Springdale to be a church, which is how it has presented itself to the IRS and thereby avoided filing Form 990 for public inspection like other private colleges.
Micah Neal, the former state representative from Springdale, pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks in return for steering grants from the state General Improvement Fund to Cranford’s company and to Ecclesia College. Jon Woods, the former state senator from Springdale, is accused of the same and will be tried next month, along with Ecclesia President Oren Paris III and a mutual friend, Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma.
According to the indictment, Paris suggested in a text message that “a good selling point” when encouraging “conservative legislators” to route GIF money to Ecclesia was it “produces graduates that are conservative voters.”
Imagine the righteous outrage if Democratic legislators argued that taxpayers should support Hendrix College — an affiliate of the United Methodist Church — because it produces a lot of liberal voters. But Woods was not outraged. His texted response to Paris: “Agreed.”
I will note that Wilkins resigned as soon as his corruption became public, even though he has not yet been charged with a crime. And he even expressed regret in his letter of resignation: “I am profoundly sorry that my own actions make this resignation necessary.”
Now, I know that seems like the least a corrupt elected official could do upon being found out, but Neal did not resign upon pleading guilty. (His term as state representative expired days later.) And Jake Files continued to draw a salary as a state senator for almost a year after he admitted to the Democrat-Gazette that he had submitted fake bids for a construction job that was being paid for with GIF money he directed.
And when Files did resign after pleading guilty to federal crimes, his letter to Gov. Hutchinson contained no apology or expression of remorse.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.