Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff, a former Arkansas legislator and the Jefferson County judge until his sudden resignation last month, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to conspiring to accept more than $80,000 in bribes.
Wilkins, who served as both a state senator and state representative, took the bribes in exchange for "influencing Arkansas state legislation and transactions," including steering about $245,000 in state funds to his co-conspirators, according to a press release from the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock.
Wilkins pleaded guilty to devising a scheme to disguise the bribes as donations to St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, where he was pastor.
"Public corruption destroys the trust that is necessary for our republic," U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said in the release. "In this case, the citizens of Arkansas were betrayed by Mr. Wilkins, and elected officials who abuse their position for personal gain must be held accountable for that violation of the public trust."
Hiland announced Wilkins' guilty plea after a hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller. Wilkins pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and bribery.
Wilkins, 64, announced his resignation on March 19, three days after federal prosecutors in Missouri said he had taken bribes from Rusty Cranford of Rogers while Wilkins was a state legislator. Wilkins represented state House District 17 from 1999-2001 and from 2011-15 and state Senate District 5 from 2001-11.
In a letter to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Wilkins said he was "profoundly sorry that my own actions make this resignation necessary."
As part of his guilty plea on Monday, Wilkins admitted that from 2010 to 2014, while he was serving in the Arkansas Legislature, he accepted bribes from lobbyists and nonprofit organizations in the form of both cash and checks. This money was "funneled from lobbying firms to a discretionary fund held in St. James' name where Wilkins had access to the deposited funds," the U.S. attorney's office said.
In exchange, Wilkins filed shell bills, sponsored bills, voted for specific legislation and steered about $245,000 in General Improvement funds to bribe-giving entities.
Cranford was both an executive and lobbyist for Preferred Family Healthcare Inc. of Kirkwood, Missouri, which operates nearly 50 mental health and behavioral clinics in Arkansas under the names Health Resources of Arkansas and Decision Point. PFH acquired the Arkansas operations in May 2015 when it acquired Alternative Opportunities Inc. of Springfield, Missouri, which used the name Dayspring for some of its clinics.
Federal prosecutors in Missouri have accused multiple PFH executives of embezzling money from the nonprofit, which is largely supported by Medicare and Medicaid. They have elicited guilty pleas from three of them — including former Arkansas state Rep. Eddie Cooper of Melbourne.
Cranford has been indicted in the case, accused of steering kickbacks to at least three Arkansas legislators: former Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in January 2017; former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, who is currently on trial for taking kickbacks; and Wilkins.
At Cranford's arraignment in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Missouri, on March 16, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich said Wilkins had admitted taking bribes. The admission came in a statement to the FBI, federal prosecutors said.
The charge against Wilkins carries a maximum penalty of not more than five years in prison, not more than a $250,000 fine and not more than three years of supervised release. Miller will sentence Wilkins at a later date.