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40 Great Whispers (40 Years of Arkansas Business)

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a special magazine celebrating 40 years of Arkansas Business. The full magazine is available here.

Whispers, the chatty space devoted to juicy news and informed speculation, has been the most popular feature in Arkansas Business right from the beginning. Here we summarize some of the best.

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Dec. 10, 1984

Landing a big automotive plant never happened, but the chatter 40 years ago was about a possible GM plant in Arkansas, specifically for a new line called Saturn. Frank White, the former governor then employed by Stephens Inc., said the only plausible location in the state would be south of West Memphis, adjacent to the Mississippi, a location that had been considered and rejected by VW. Saturn ultimately located south of Nashville, Tennessee, and produced cars from 1990 to 2009.

Nov. 25, 1985

Advertising sales reps at the Arkansas Gazette were put on salary rather than commission, hurting morale, and a few reportedly chose to vote with their feet. Meanwhile, the competing Arkansas Democrat’s publisher, Walter Hussman, was trying to influence morale among major local advertisers. He released financial records that had been filed in the Gazette’s antitrust suit against the Democrat, including its substantially higher profits and Gazette Publisher Hugh Patterson’s $250,000 pay raise (more than $700,000 adjusted for inflation). Hussman won the lawsuit, and in 1991, he won the newspaper war.

Aug. 18, 1986

The financial stability of Pickens-Bond Construction Co. of Little Rock caught Whispers’ attention, but President Doug Jackson specifically denied street talk of bankruptcy, despite having to pick up $4.5 million as guarantor of a project in Atlanta. He would not talk about whether the Dillard family or their department store chain, a major client, had written a check to help. Alas, under new ownership, Pickens-Bond collapsed in bankruptcy in 1987.

Jan. 5, 1987

Lynn Lloyd, a CPA and majority owner of Savers Federal Savings & Loan of Little Rock when it became insolvent, had already set a new Arkansas record for personal bankruptcy in his Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in November 1986. So what were he and Ron Rye, a Dardanelle radio executive, doing trying to buy a weekly newspaper in the St. Louis suburb of O’Fallon, Illinois? The owners said Lloyd and Rye offered them $2 million — almost $5.5 million today — and were ready to pay more than half in cash. After getting wind of his business and personal debts, $63.6 million ($170 million today), they declined his remarkably generous offer. The Progress reported that Lloyd wanted to take control of its presses to assure favorable coverage of City Hall, noting that he and O’Fallon Mayor Kristi Vetry had been “frequent companions” since her divorce the previous summer.

June 20, 1988

Naming no sources, Whispers reported that Doyle Rogers’ Excelsior Hotel in downtown Little Rock was “many, many months” in arrears in its payments on an $18 million loan originated by Savers Federal S&L with participations by other financial institutions.

The Excelsior Hotel, now the Marriott (Arkansas Business file photo)

The 420-room hotel, now branded as the Little Rock Marriott, had not met projections and had no profits to share with the city, owner of the adjacent Statehouse Convention Center, as agreed. Whispers reported that Rogers was also in arrears on his 25-story FirstSouth Building, which had opened in 1985 and is now owned and branded by Stephens Inc.

May 8, 1989

Absent confirmation from the parties, Whispers speculated on the sudden departure of David Howell from One National Bancshares, the bank holding company he set up with trucking company magnate J.B. Hunt in 1985. “Street talk centers on the profit picture at the banks, including OneBanks in Little Rock and Hot Springs and First National Bank of Fayetteville,” we reported back when banks could not branch out of the home market. Hunt needed to cover the interest on the $41 million he borrowed from a St. Louis bank to buy the banks, debt secured by J.B. Hunt stock. In 2002, Howell would be found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel room just as state securities regulators were becoming aware of a years-long Ponzi scheme that generated $84 million in claims and a probate case that would take 11 years to unwind.

Oct. 8, 1990

A guy who knew, we mean really knew, said central Arkansans could prepare themselves to bid adieu to Razorbacks football. It might take a few years, our source assured Whispers, but a planned airport in Benton or Washington county had recently been pitched to the U.S. House Committee on Public Works & Transportation by Alice Walton, then chair of the Northwest Arkansas Council. The airport, coupled with expansion of Razorback Stadium and U.S. Highway 71 and the support of legendary UA Athletics Director Frank Broyles, would seal the teams’ fate. “The Southeast Conference wants you to have a big stadium,” our excellent source said. Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport — now Northwest Arkansas National Airport — opened in 1998. With significant arm-twisting, the Razorbacks have continued to play in Little Rock, albeit fewer and less prestigious games. This year the season opener will be at War Memorial Stadium against the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Oct. 28, 1991

A reporter for London’s Sunday Telegraph came to Little Rock shortly after Gov. Bill Clinton announced his campaign for president, and he asked what Whispers called “The Question.” Clinton, perhaps trusting in those pre-internet days that the homies would never see the story addressing rumors of infidelity, answered with unusual candor. “If perfection is the standard, I can’t pass,” Clinton said. “Will those words come back to haunt Clinton?” Whispers asked.

June 1, 1992

Did you hear that God endorsed once and future California Gov. Jerry Brown in the race for president? A small group wanted to make that announcement in Little Rock from the Capitol steps during the March for Jesus, but organizers of the rally denied the request. The consensus was that it would take a miracle for Brown to be elected president and that would be proof enough that God was backing him.

Jan. 4, 1993

Shortly after the Country Club of Little Rock admitted a Black member, Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock followed suit. He was Walt Patterson, former director of the state Department of Human Services, and his membership — unopposed — was sponsored by Worthen Banking Corp. Chairman and CEO Curt Bradbury and newly elected state Sen. Jim Keet.

March 21, 1994

Anyone who wondered how far-reaching Independent Counsel Robert Fiske’s investigation into then-President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater investment might be got their answer from Whispers: A subpoena to the Arkansas Securities Commission sought all documents and communications referring or relating to scores of individuals and businesses. Here’s a partial list of names familiar and obscure: Mark Abernathy, Charlotte Abernathy, Lisa Aunspaugh, Julie Baldridge, J.W. Benafield, George Betts, Robert Boyce, Gary Bunch, Andrew Clark, William Jefferson Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Shirley Cooper, Don Denton, Davis Fitzhugh, Eugene Fitzhugh, John Flake, Vincent Foster, J. William Fulbright, Irene Garner, Dan Garner, Lex Golden, Richard Grasby, David Hale, Linda Sue Hale, Michael Hall, Janet Hall, Robert Hall, Margaret Hardin, Eugene Patrick Harris, James Henley, William Henley, Richard Holbert, Marlin Jackson, Jerry Jones, Larry Kuca, John Latham, Bob Leslie, John May, Charles Matthews, James B. McDougal, Lorene McDougal, Susan H. McDougal, Sheffield Nelson, Gerald Nesbitt, John Niven, Mary Niven, Robert Palmer, Dean Paul, Charles Peacock, R.D. Randolph, Beverly Bassett Schaffer, John Selig, Rae Ann Simmons, Prescilla Skarda.

Nov. 6, 1995

In an item titled “All in the Family,” Whispers acknowledged the “spirited and impassioned negotiations” between Alan Leveritt and Olivia Farrell as they divided up the Arkansas Writers’ Project into the Arkansas Times and Arkansas Business Publishing Group. Farrell would lead ABPG until 2019, when she and her investors sold it to Mitch Bettis.

Dec. 30, 1996

First Commercial Corp. of Little Rock had announced its acquisition of Wallace Fowler’s Southwest Bancshares Inc. of Jonesboro. Whispers plumped out the news with other tidbits: After acquiring banks in Jonesboro, Searcy, Russellville and Wynne, Fowler had grown their combined assets by six-fold. Southwest Bancshares was selling for about 2.25 times book value, depending on the First Commercial stock price at the close of the sale, one of the highest multiples ever paid for an Arkansas operation. And a few Jonesboro businessmen had been approached about — you guessed it — investing in a new locally owned bank. Two years later, Regions Financial would pay four times book for First Commercial.

July 21, 1997

Whispers broke the news that Ross Whipple, chairman, CEO and leading stockholder, was going to sell $505 million-asset Horizon Bancorp Inc. of Arkadelphia to St. Louis-based Mercantile Bancorporation Inc., which had purchased TCBankshares Inc. of North Little Rock in 1995 and Security Bank of Conway shortly after. Whispers was right, of course. Mercantile paid $120 million in stock for Horizon, between 2.7 and 2.9 times book value. Whipple would go on to build Summit Bancshares in Arkadelphia and sell it to Bank of the Ozarks (now Bank OZK) for $216 million in 2014. (Arkansas Business broke that news online rather than in Whispers, and OZK CEO George Gleason was not happy.)

Sept. 28, 1998

Johnny Allison had resigned from the board of directors of Regions Financial, where he landed after its eye-popping acquisition of First Commercial, and he and Robert “Bunny” Adcock Jr. resigned from the board of First National Bank of Conway. Then they teamed up with Alex Lieblong and others to buy tiny Holly Grove Bank in Monroe County. Why? Statewide branching was about to become legal on Jan. 1, 1999. Long story short: Holly Grove Bank and its $27.7 million in assets was the start of the $22.6 billion Centennial Bank of Conway and its publicly traded holding company, Home Bancshares.

July 5, 1999

Sen. Nick Wilson (Arkansas Business file photo)

State Sen. Nick Wilson, D-Pocahontas, had already been indicted by a federal grand jury on wide-ranging corruption charges when Whispers reported on buzz in the real estate community about some details included in the indictment: alleged fee-splitting between commercial real estate broker John Flake, Wilson and go-between Murrey Grider on the sales of the Union Bank Building in 1994 and Atkins Building in 1996.

Since Grider and Wilson weren’t licensed to conduct real estate business, it would have been illegal for them to collect any money from the sales. Ultimately, no fee-splitting charges were filed, although Wilson was convicted later that year of tax evasion and pleaded guilty the next year to racketeering.

March 6, 2000

Stephens Sports Management, a subsidiary of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, cut ties as marketing agent for two University of Arkansas coaches’ shows, “The Houston Nutt Show” and “The Rollin’ With Nolan Show.” Whispers readers wondering whether this was related to the emotional tug-of-war over Razorbacks football games, which Stephens was passionate about keeping at War Memorial Stadium, got their answer: Yes. “In light of Mr. [Warren] Stephens’ position on games in Little Rock, it was felt that it would be best not to continue the relationship,” said Frank Thomas, spokesman for Stephens Inc. “That was communicated to the [University of Arkansas] athletic department recently.” Then Whispers speculated that show sponsors with obvious Stephens connections might remove themselves from the lineup: Stephens Inc., Alltel Corp. and Dillard’s Inc. The coaches, Houston Nutt and Nolan Richardson, were said to be earning something less than $250,000 from the shows.

July 9, 2001

Whispers revealed that the Riley Co. had defaulted the previous month on an $11.5 million loan from the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, although chairman Pat Riley Sr. quibbled. Both sides agreed that Riley was going to turn over three properties to ATRS in lieu of foreclosure: Oak Hill Manor North in North Little Rock and Oak Hill Manor South and Woodland Heights, both in Little Rock. And that’s how ATRS got into the nursing home business.

Sept. 23, 2002

The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System got out of the real estate business. After a series of unpleasant revelations left them chagrined and somewhat numb, the pension trustees imposed a moratorium on real estate investing at least until the newly hired executive director, David Malone, came on board the following January.

Sept. 15, 2003

Darrell Walker and Dr. Carl Johnson, the combatants in a widely reported “Brawl at Chenal,” didn’t need to feel too bad. Whispers revealed that there had been at least two other fights at Chenal Country Club in west Little Rock in recent months. One was reportedly a Sunday afternoon melee on the 18th green that included, in varying degrees of participation, Kent Norris of Insurance Center Inc., Scotty Caroom of Excel Lighting & Maintenance Corp. and Mark Madison of Madison Financial Services, all in Little Rock. Another recent scuffle apparently included Clif Kelley of State Farm Insurance in Little Rock and three other golfers.

Nov. 1, 2004

The news that a Lonoke goldfish distributor had been charged with obstructing a federal grand jury investigation was enough to raise the eyebrows of even the jaded Whispers crew. It wasn’t the sheer novelty of price-fixing in such an esoteric industry as feeder goldfish, which appears to be what the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in Cleveland was investigating. What interested the Whispers crew was the fact that the Pool Fish Distributors Inc. case was being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Culum, the same man who the previous year charged three other Arkansans — Dan Whitt of Maumelle; his son, David Whitt of Little Rock; and Dan Whitt’s former attorney, Keith Moser of Little Rock — with running a kickback scheme in Michigan. (By this time, Moser had already been indicted, fled to Madagascar, been escorted home by the FBI and pleaded guilty to scads of federal crimes. His 15-year sentence would be reduced for cooperating on other cases.)

Jan. 31, 2005

In 2004, CPA Lance Talkington and attorney Theodore C. “Teddy” Skokos Jr. wouldn’t tell Arkansas Business where they maintained their legal residences. But they were more forthcoming in a lawsuit filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court by an irate investor in their U.S. Virgin Islands company who had been sold on a circuitous way to lower his tax bill. In a response, Talkington and Skokos declared themselves to be residents of the USVI, even though they both were practicing their professions at offices in Little Rock. The following year, a federal judge agreed with them. By then, both the IRS and the state of Arkansas had tightened up that particularly sweet tax-reduction strategy, which was something of a cottage industry in Arkansas.

Aug. 14, 2006

First an obscure Ohio blogger noticed Little Rock securities lawyer Gene Cauley’s “indiscreet personal Internet page,” as Whispers referred to his posts on MySpace. Then The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog copied and pasted descriptions of “Geno” Cauley’s social interests (“single women who are funny, smart, fun, sexy, spontaneous and have their [expletive] together”) and other similar material directly from the page. Cauley’s page featured lots of photos and other artwork, the unifying theme of which seemed to be cleavage. Cauley did not respond to a call from Whispers, but he did post this message on the attention-getting site: “arkansas business is a rag gossip sheet that i line my cat box with. its editor gwen moritz is an angry middle aged overweight woman.” Cauley would later go to federal prison for stealing millions from a client trust account. He killed himself in 2016.

Jan. 22, 2007

Five Little Rock men involved in economic development went to India to work with an India-based corporation that manufactures pipes. The company was looking to locate a $60 million to $80 million plant at the Little Rock Port that could employ up to 250 workers. Making the journey were Paul Latture, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority; Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce; Mike Maulden, director of external affairs for Entergy Arkansas and chairman of the LR Port Authority; Mitch Chandler, communication section leader for the Arkansas Department of Economic Development; and Joey Dean, vice president of economic development for the Little Rock chamber. So, was the trip successful? Does the name Welspun ring any bells?

Oct. 27, 2008

The Great Recession didn’t even have a name when Whispers took note that Dillard’s Inc. stock was trading just under $4. The entire Dillard family’s stock in the department store chain was worth just over $26 million. If only we had all bought and held. Dillard’s stock now routinely sells in the $400 range.

Feb. 9, 2009

William Clark, CEO of Clark Contractors, stands outside of the former Lakeview Dining Room at the Pleasant Valley Country Club, now undergoing extensive remodeling. (Karen E. Segrave)

“Look for a familiar name to return soon to the Arkansas business scene,” Whispers teased. “And by soon, we mean very, very soon.” The following week, Whispers revealed that the name was Clark. William Clark opened Clark Contractors LLC after leaving CDI Contractors LLC in January. In 1987, we had whispered about the formation of CDI as a joint venture between Dillard’s Inc. and Clark’s father, Bill. Bill Clark died in 2007, and the next year, Dillard’s exercised its option to buy the Clark family’s half of the business. In between, CDI’s chief financial officer, John Glasgow, went missing, and Arkansas Business revealed that CDI and Dillard’s were in an accounting dispute at the time. Glasgow’s remains were found on Petit Jean Mountain seven years later, but no cause of death could be determined. And now Clark Contractors is 15 years old.

Dec. 6, 2010

Whispers didn’t have all the puzzle pieces just yet, but we had enough to report that First Southern Bank of Batesville had bought $22 million worth of rural improvement district bonds from attorney Kevin Lewis, that the bonds might be fraudulent, and that Lewis couldn’t be located. Since the questionable bonds cost more than the bank’s total equity capital of $19.2 million, the bank was scrambling to merge with another bank. All of which was spot-on. As the story continued to unfold, Arkansas Business would report that the bonds were, in fact, phony, that Lewis had sold tens of millions worth to other banks and investors, and that his family trust was the majority shareholder in First Southern — which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. shut down less than two weeks after our first Whisper. Ultimately, Lewis was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to bank fraud. With proceeds of about $50 million, it was the largest fraud ever prosecuted in Arkansas.

May 30, 2011

<p>Brandon Barber</p>
Brandon Barber (Arkansas Business file photo)

That the FBI had subpoenaed at least one northwest Arkansas bank’s records for any of its dealings with Brandon Barber was the first confirmation that the former Fayetteville real estate developer’s $48 million Chapter 7 bankruptcy had spawned a criminal investigation. But it wasn’t a total surprise. Legacy National Bank of Springdale had already persuaded the bankruptcy judge to deny discharge of his debts because he had attempted to defraud creditors. Three years later, Barber would plead guilty to bank fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison, some of which was time served because he was taken into custody after repeatedly violating the terms of his pretrial release. Several co-defendants were also convicted of helping Barber.

Jan. 9, 2012

Gregory D. Jones of Fayetteville was in hot water and no one could find him to answer questions. Whispers was the first to report that Jones, then 50, had walked away from his practice the previous summer and that the state Supreme Court had suspended his law license in December. He blew off a trial in which he was a defendant, resulting in an easy judgment against him for $870,500 for his mishandling of a trust belonging to the heirs of Gregg Ogden, owner of Athletic World Advertising of Fayetteville. Jones, then 50, was finally located in July 2012 in Eureka Springs. He blamed his vanishing act on a death threat and surrendered his law license in August.

July 8, 2013

<p>Remmele Mazyck</p>
Remmele Mazyck (Arkansas Business file photo)

“Tell Us, Magic 8-Ball,” Whispers asked. “Is a member of the South Carolina contingent that arrived in Little Rock to launch the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery in 2009 about to be in the news again?” And the answer that Monday was “Signs Point to Yes.” The following Friday Remmele Mazyck, a former security official for the lottery, pleaded guilty in federal court to wire fraud and money laundering for stealing and cashing lottery tickets worth close to half a million dollars. He didn’t even wait to be indicted by a grand jury. Mazyck, who followed Arkansas’ original lottery director, Ernie Passailaigue, from South Carolina to help launch the lottery here, was sentenced to three years in federal prison.

Feb. 3, 2014

Banking sources told Whispers that Delta Trust & Banking Corp. of Little Rock was being sold to Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff. We even had a price: $63 million. Simmons EVP David Garner called the report “totally a rumor,” but the price was $66 million when the banks announced the deal about six weeks later.

Aug. 24, 2015

Visitors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Illinois were in Little Rock earlier in the month to talk with John Rogers of North Little Rock, a sports memorabilia dealer who had been accused of fraud in multiple civil cases. The probability of criminal charges was high. After all, the FBI had executed search warrants at this business and home six months earlier. Why Chicagoland feds were interested in Rogers would become clear: His case was wrapped up in an FBI investigation into sports memorabilia auction houses, particularly Mastro Auctions in suburban Chicago. Rogers blew up a sweet plea deal by continuing his con and ended up with a 12-year sentence. His projected release date from the Forrest City low-security unit is Feb. 16, 2027.

Feb. 8, 2016

As an Arkansas Business story on the trend of national banks converting to bank charters was being printed, Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff, the largest national bank chartered in Arkansas, proved the thesis by filing a conversion application with the Arkansas State Bank Department. On April 1, 2016, Simmons First National Bank became Simmons Bank. The publicly traded holding company retains its original name, Simmons First National Corp.

Sept. 18, 2017

Whispers was keeping an eye on CARTI in 2017. In March, Whispers reported that the cancer treatment provider had a loss of $5.7 million for the last half of 2016, more than twice the anticipated loss. In September, Fitch Ratings Inc. of Chicago downgraded CARTI’s bond rating from BBB-, the lowest investment-grade rating, to BB+. Newly hired CEO Adam Head emphasized progress, and Fitch acknowledged a turnaround in fiscal 2018, but the last couple of years have been challenging.

Dec. 3, 2018

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, having had a falling out with the developer of a Main Street property where it intended to establish new offices, had turned its sights to “Little Rock’s hot, hot, hot East Village development.” Readers had probably forgotten about this Whisper by the time it was proved true with the ASO’s announcement three years and one pandemic later.

Sept. 2, 2019

Directors of Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff might have been surprised to learn from Whispers that a $180 million replacement hospital was in the works. Even though many details were already on the website of an Indiana architecture firm, it turned out the board of directors had not yet approved the plan.

July 20, 2020

A construction company’s 2016 request to change its direct deposit account information on file at the Arkansas Department of Transportation turned out to be a scam. As a result, $2.4 million intended for Crossland Construction Co. of Columbus, Kansas, was instead routed into the account of Shelly S. Singhal of Newport Beach, California, according to an indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Arkansas. Crossland was made whole, but the wheels of justice turned slowly. It took almost four years for the indictment, and Singhal — already a convicted felon in an insider trading scheme — pleaded guilty to wire fraud in April 2023 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November. He is in federal prison in Colorado.

Nov. 8, 2021

Having taken note of the depressed value of the Dillard family’s stock holdings in 2008, Whispers similarly noted a great year for the family that controls Dillard’s Inc. The stock popped from the $50 range in late 2020 to $300 in November 2021, and the family fortune was worth more than $2 billion.

March 7, 2022

Ownership of the 30-story Regions Center in downtown Little Rock was quietly transferred to its mortgage holder in February. Little Rock-400 West Capitol Trust of New York, led by Taconic Capital Advisors Ltd., made a credit bid of $31 million for the 547,000-SF building at 400 W. Capitol Ave. The maneuver was much like a foreclosure, except it was accomplished as part of the long-running bankruptcy filed in 2016 by 32 limited liability companies that had borrowed $32 million to buy the building in 2006. The bid was the best of several received by a broker hired by the bankruptcy trustee and was approved by Bankruptcy Judge John Dorsey.

March 20, 2023

Whispers was the first to report that Second Horizon Capital of Boca Raton, Florida, was planning to buy Park Plaza Mall in Little Rock. And so it did, for $25.2 million, through its University Markham Holdings LLC affiliate.

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