That was some front page on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on June 8.
The top story was headlined “Plea cites ‘Senator A’ payoffs” with a secondary headline: “Lobbyist Cranford admits role in bribery of lawmakers.”
This is an Opinion
Below that was an entirely separate report on the attempted bribery of a member of the state Medical Marijuana Commission: “AG’s letter says pot panelist got offer of a bribe.”
I don’t have space here to delve into the second one, although it certainly underscores the impression that Arkansas is a deeply corrupt place. On the first, let me acknowledge these two facts:
► “Senator A” — that is, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson — has not been charged with any crime; and
► His excellent defense attorney, Tim Dudley, declares absolutely that all the money Hutchinson received from Rusty Cranford and Preferred Family Healthcare was proper payment for work performed as a licensed attorney.
But it’s also true that Cranford identified Hutchinson among the lawmakers that he bribed, along with former state Sen. Jon Woods (convicted by jury) and former legislator and Jefferson County Judge Henry Wilkins, who pleaded guilty. (Former state Rep. Micah Neal, the first to plead guilty, also confessed to taking kickbacks from Cranford, with Woods acting as a middleman.)
Now this becomes some kind of thought experiment. Is it possible that Cranford believed he was bribing Hutchinson for legislative actions, but Hutchinson thought he was being paid only for legal work? Is it possible that Hutchinson, with total integrity, happened to be in full philosophical agreement with Cranford on legislation that would benefit Cranford’s employer and his other lobbying clients?
If anyone could convince prosecutors (or a jury) that his client was guileless, it would be Tim Dudley. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time we had a one-sided bribery case in this state.
Former State Treasurer Martha Shoffner went to federal prison for taking bribes. But the bond broker who slipped her the cash, Steele Stephens, was given immunity and got to keep the millions of dollars in commissions he earned from the state business she steered his way. (I understand that immunity might have been necessary, but it still burns me up that he got to keep more money than most people will earn in a lifetime of honest labor.)
And Mike Maggio, the former Faulkner County circuit judge, is serving a 10-year sentence after he pleaded guilty to lowering a jury’s verdict against a nursing home in exchange for campaign contributions from the nursing home’s owner. But while Maggio believed he was being bribed, and took an official act in return, no one has ever been charged with bribing him.
Jeremy Hutchinson gets the presumption of innocence, and I’m happy to give it to him. But I do have to wonder about the quality of his legal work for Preferred Family Healthcare, a Missouri company that has done business in Arkansas under the names Alternative Opportunities, Decision Point and Dayspring.
According to Cranford’s plea, Hutchinson’s relationship with Cranford and PFH lasted from 2012 to 2017. During that time, and before, virtually every member of PFH’s executive team was engaged in bribery and embezzlement, according to federal prosecutors. And since PFH’s revenue comes almost exclusively from Medicaid, taxpayers are the victims.
Rusty Cranford, in addition to being a lobbyist, oversaw PFH’s Arkansas operations — dozens of clinics. He was the third executive to plead guilty, following Carl David Hayes of Springfield, Missouri, a board member who also oversaw acquisitions, and Eddie Cooper of Melbourne, a regional director for the nonprofit who was embezzling even while he was serving as an Arkansas state representative. An outside consultant, D.A. Jones of New Jersey, also pleaded guilty, as did Wilkins, who was merely a beneficiary of bribes from Cranford.
But wait! There’s more! Federal prosecutors in Missouri say PFH’s CEO, CFO, COO and chief clinical officer — four more executives — were in on the conspiracy to embezzle and bribe, although they have not (yet) been charged. If I were a lawyer, maybe I’d understand why this isn’t a RICO case.
In the best-case scenario, Jeremy Hutchinson did a half-million dollars’ worth of legal work over a five-year period without noticing that his client was a den of thieves.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.