(A correction has been made to this article. See end for details.)
Everybody’s talking about the alphabet soup of unindicted people and entities described in state Rep. Micah Neal’s plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
In an article originally set to come out in Whispers on Monday, Arkansas Business has determined the identities of several of them.
By now it’s widely understood that “Senator A,” who (according to Neal) led the wide-eyed rookie down the path of corruption, was his fellow Springdale Republican Jon Woods.
Woods is one of four state senators who fit the description included in Neal’s plea agreement — that is, he served in the House from 2007-12 and then moved into the Senate in 2013. But only Woods is Senator A.
It’s also fairly obvious that “Entity B,” one of the two nonprofits from which Neal said he received illegal kickbacks, is Ecclesia Inc. The plea agreement describes Entity B as a nonprofit corporation operating a college in Springdale, and that can only be Ecclesia College.
A spreadsheet released Friday morning by Joe Willis, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison, shows distributions to Ecclesia College directed by Neal and Woods that match those described in Neal’s plea agreement.
“Person B,” described as “the president of Entity B and a friend of Senator A,” is Oren Paris III. But you probably figured that out already too.
In a statement posted on the college’s website, Paris wrote, “After reading the statements contained in Mr. Neal’s plea agreement, I can unequivocally state that neither I nor Ecclesia College have been party to illegal activity. We have never been a party to any agreements to funnel money to any state legislator.”
Arkansas Business hasn’t learned the identity of “Person C,” described as “the incorporator and sole member of a limited liability corporation incorporated in the State of Arkansas that purportedly provides consulting services” and “a friend of Senator A and Person B.”
Person C — not even a hint as to gender — passed $18,000 in cash to Neal in exchange for the $50,000 directed to Entity B from the state General Improvement Fund.
A and A-1
Arkansas Business has, however, ascertained the identity of “Person A,” who allegedly sent Neal a $20,000 kickback by way of Senator A.
He is Rusty Cranford, who, like Woods and Paris, has not been charged with any crime.
Neal’s plea agreement describes Person A as the incorporator, registered agent and director of “Entity A,” a nonprofit in the Western District of Arkansas “that purportedly sought to create manufacturing jobs in northwest Arkansas, specifically for a specialized workforce including disabled veterans, disadvantaged youth, and individuals recovering from substance abuse.”
Person A is also a “high-ranking executive” of “Entity A-1,” which is a health care provider that has facilities in the Western District of Arkansas “and elsewhere.”
And Person A is a “licensed lobbyist in the State of Arkansas.”
Cranford is an executive vice president of Preferred Family Healthcare Inc. of Kirksville, Missouri, which operates a couple dozen facilities in Arkansas, including Dayspring Behavioral Health Services in Springdale.
During the period in which Neal was accepting kickbacks — January 2013 to January 2015 — these facilities were operated by a company called Alternative Opportunities Inc. of Springfield, Missouri, which did business as Decision Point, and Cranford was described as CEO of its Arkansas operations. Alternative Opportunities/Decision Point, which Preferred Family Healthcare acquired in May 2015, would be Entity A-1. (It is listed as Decision Point d/b/a AmeriWorks on the NWAEDD spreadsheets.)
Cranford, listed as Milton R. Cranford with a Bentonville address, is identified by the Arkansas secretary of state as incorporator, registered agent and officer of a nonprofit corporation called AmeriWorks, no address given. That would be Entity A.
The incorporation papers for AmeriWorks were filed on Sept. 27, 2013. That is the very day that, at the direction of Neal and Senator A, checks totaling $400,000 were issued to Entity A-1 by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison, which played middleman for GIF money in that part of the state.
Three days later, the checks were deposited into Entity A’s bank account.
The relationship between AmeriWorks and Alternative Opportunities is not clear. Cranford was connected with both, but Neal’s plea agreement says only that Entity A “was associated with” Entity A-1. And, of course, checks made out to one were deposited into the other’s account.
Rusty Cranford is also a registered lobbyist — or, more precisely, his is the only name currently associated with a registered lobbying firm with a Little Rock post office box address called Cranford Coalition. (Back in 2015, four more lobbyists were associated with the firm, and one of its clients was the Arkansas Behavioral Health Providers Association.)
In addition to matching up their biographies, Arkansas Business also confirmed Cranford’s identity with two sources with knowledge of the federal investigation.
Cranford did not return repeated phone calls on Thursday and Friday morning.
Reginald McElhannon, executive vice president for corporate communications for Preferred Family Healthcare, issued the following statement late Friday morning in response to questions from Arkansas Business:
“AmeriWorks, Inc. has no legal affiliation with Preferred Family Healthcare. One of our affiliates, Decision Point, a treatment provider in Bentonville, Arkansas, was exploring a collaboration to provide employment for needed populations. At the time, Decision Point was an affiliate of Alternative Opportunities, which merged with our organization on May 1, 2015.
“After the $400,000 General Improvement Fund was awarded, it was later determined that AmeriWorks was not prepared to move forward with the initiative. After further study, Decision Point did not feel it was in a position to utilize the funds as prescribed and sent a check in the full amount of $400,000 to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District on August 13, 2014.
“Rusty Cranford was an employee of Dayspring Behavioral Health Services when it was acquired by Alternative Opportunities in 2007. Alternative Opportunities merged with Decision Point in 2011 and Health Resources of Arkansas in 2014. All three entities were facing challenging financial and infrastructure needs and Alternative Opportunities, and now Preferred Family Healthcare, has worked diligently to provide support to these affiliates so they are the strong and vibrant organizations which are impacting the lives of thousands of Arkansans seeking behavioral and mental health services, including those facing the challenges of Substance Use Disorder.”
Willis released a statement to Arkansas Business on Friday describing the NWAEDD as a victim of Neal’s crimes:
“The Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District was made aware of a law enforcement investigation involving GIF distributions in the fall of 2015. The District has cooperated fully with the investigation including honoring the demand that the subpoenas, inquiries, and the investigation be kept confidential. The District understands that this is an ongoing investigation as it relates to other unnamed parties. The District is a victim, is not under investigation and had no knowledge that any funds were being misdirected by anyone at any time.”
(Correction, Jan. 26, 2017: Reginald McElhannon is executive vice president for corporate communications for Preferred Family Healthcare. His position with the company had been reported incorrectly.)