Former lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford of Rogers pleaded guilty in a Missouri federal court Thursday to bribing Arkansas elected officials in what prosecutors called a "multimillion-dollar scheme."
Cranford, 57, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush in Springfield, Missouri, to one count of federal program bribery. Cranford was an executive at the nonprofit Preferred Family Healthcare Inc. of Springfield (formerly Alternative Opportunities Inc.) and oversaw its operations and lobbying efforts in Arkansas.
By pleading guilty, Cranford admitted that he and other Preferred Family executives paid bribes to former Arkansas Sen. Jon Woods, former Sen. Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV, a person identified in court documents as "Arkansas Senator A" and others, to "provide favorable legislative action for Cranford, his clients, and Preferred Family Healthcare," according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Missouri.
More: Read the plea agreement, and see the information — a charge filed directly by prosecutors rather than an indictment issued by a grand jury — in the case at the end of this story.
In turn, the legislators "steered Arkansas General Improvement Fund (GIF) money to Preferred Family Healthcare and other Cranford clients; held up agency budgets; requested legislative audits; and sponsored, filed and voted for legislative bills that favored the charity and Cranford clients," prosecutors said.
The guilty plea is the latest in a still-unfolding scandal involving bribery and GIF dollars in Arkansas. Federal prosecutors in Missouri have accused multiple Preferred Family executives of embezzling money from the nonprofit, which is largely supported by Medicare and Medicaid. They have elicited guilty pleas from former Arkansas state Rep. Eddie Cooper of Melbourne and Wilkins.
Wilkins' guilty plea referred to two unnamed lawmakers, "Senator A" and "Senator B," saying they helped pass legislation sought by Wilkins and Cranford. Jeremy Hutchinson, an Arkansas state senator and a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, matched the description of "Senator A." It didn't accuse Hutchinson of wrongdoing and he has not been charged in the case.
According to prosecutors, Cranford and related entities and clients paid "Senator A" $500,000 in "cash; checks; wire transfers; retainers; and attorney's fees" from 2012 to 2017. Cranford also provided "Senator A" with hotel rooms and tickets to Major League Baseball games, including tickets to the 2013 World Series, according to the information in the case.
"I have reviewed Rusty Cranford's plea agreement. I am confident that Senator Hutchinson, a lawyer and part time legislator, did nothing illegal or unethical," Tim Dudley, Hutchinson's lawyer, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "... from the description in the plea agreement and Information, it appears that Senator A is Jeremy Hutchinson."
Asa Hutchinson said that he didn't know whether his nephew was the unidentified legislator.
"Without any doubt, the allegations that are contained in the indictment and the factual statement are profoundly serious and undermine the system of legislative process that the public relies upon, it undermines the confidence that the public has in their government," Hutchinson said during a previously scheduled briefing with reporters in his office Thursday.
"If state Senator A is indicted, then he or she should resign from office," the governor said.
The Missouri case is separate from but related to a federal investigation in Arkansas that elicited a guilty plea from former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale and resulted in a jury conviction of Woods, also of Springdale. Neal and Woods were both accused of taking kickbacks from Cranford.
(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)