Real pork barrel: GIF money spent for Christmas hams in two parts of the state | Arkansas Blog

Real pork barrel: GIF money spent for Christmas hams in two parts of the state

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FAMILIAR FACE: Lobbyist Rusty Cranford, shown in a Facebook entry with Sen. Linda Chesterfield at a 2014 meeting, has been a player in the distribution of General Improvement Fund money through regional planning and development districts.
  • FAMILIAR FACE: Lobbyist Rusty Cranford, shown in a Facebook entry with Sen. Linda Chesterfield at a 2014 meeting, has been a player in the distribution of General Improvement Fund money through regional planning and development districts.

Mike Wilson, the former representative from Jacksonville, called today with an interesting tidbit on expenditure of General Improvement Fund money funneled through regional planning and development agencies.

Wilson has inexplicably lost one round before Circuit Judge Chris Piazza in challenging the constitutionality of the legislator-controlled GIF spending, a ruse established to work around an earlier lawsuit Wilson won that stopped local legislation sending state money to local projects. He's appealing.

SHOPPING LIST: This was part of proposed shopping list attached to application for $80,000 to feed needy in Northwest - Arkansas.
  • SHOPPING LIST: This was part of proposed shopping list attached to application for $80,000 to feed needy in Northwest Arkansas.
But Wilson has been following with interest the developments in Northwest Arkansas. He limited his lawsuit to the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, which covers where he lives. The Northwest district funneled money to two agencies — a health services operation and a college — that produced from intermediaries kickbacks to then-Republican Rep. Micah Neal. He's pleaded guilty to a federal charge. All indications are that he got his $38,000 in cash kickbacks, with the help of unnamed senator who has not been charged but who is believed to be Jon Woods, because of $400,000 they  guided to an organization whose corporate identities include Decision Point, Dayspring and Preferred Family Healthcare and to Ecclesia College. Both agencies have acknowledged receipt of money but said they did nothing illegal.

Yesterday, thanks to an FOI request, I got copies of subpoenas issued in the federal Grand Jury probe and Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District documents on distribution of GIF money. Some of the distributions — though not mentioned in Neal's guilty plea and not questioned as to legality from a criminal standpoint — are nonetheless interesting because they follow the pattern Wilson's lawsuit showed in Central Arkansas Planning (which has also had a visit from FBI agents). Legislators and district officials viewed money sentto  the agencies as private spending accounts. E-mails show the money was spent as legislators directed. Some things had the color of "economic development," though barely. Legislators who contributed money to Ecclesia said they did so in the name of "workforce development" — paying the college for the cost of educating students.

I reported yesterday that Decision Point had received $19,500 of a requested $80,000 grant application to provide meals for needy families and presents for children at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It said it hoped to feed almost 700 families for $30 each at both Thanksgiving and Christmas and illustrated how it could be done with a Walmart shopping list. Tim Summers, an employee of the agency and former legislator, signed the application. Rusty Cranford, executive vice president of Preferred Family Healthcare/Dayspring, was identified as the person with the authority to bind the applicant. In the explanation of how the money would assist in community and economic development, the application said, in part, "Assisting families in providing for their basic needs during critical times can improve the families' overall outlook and perception of their community and can encourage re-engagement in community ties and activities." Eight area legislators made distributions from their GIF money to fulfill the amount paid on the application.

Such activity was not limited to Northwest Arkansas, Mike Wilson told me this morning. He noted the name Rusty Cranford also popped up in his review of Central Arkansas records on GIF expenditures.

In October 2015, Cranford applied on behalf of  Preferred Family Healthcare dba Dayspring Behavioral Health Services for $40,000. According to the application submitted with other evidence in Wilson's court challenge, it was to "provide Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to the most needy citizens of Arkansas, as well as gifts to the most in need children in Arkansas."

How will it aid community and economic development, the application form asked?

By providing meals, gifts and services to those who would otherwise go without. 

The application for GIF money asks for a list of individuals and partners who have assisted in project development. The answer:

Local legislators: Representative Fredrick Love, Representative Karilyn Brown and Senator Linda Chesterfield. 
The budget detailed planned expenditures for 300 turkeys and 300 hams for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and $50 each for presents for 200 children. The grant was approved by the CAPDD Board on Nov. 5, along with a string of other grants.

Judge Piazza has held this was an economic development activity intended by the legislature and thus allowed constitutionally. Wilson hopes for a better outcome at the Supreme Court.

Cranford, in addition to being an executive of the health agency, is a registered lobbyist, now for the Cranford Coalition. He previously was affiliated with the Cooper Cranford contract lobbying firm. On its Facebook page, I found a photo he'd posted in 2014 with Sen. Linda Chesterfield, one of the sponsors of the needy feeding program grant.

Cranford and others in his firm were active recently in the battle by operators of juvenile lockups to hang onto state contracts against the Hutchinson administration's wish to transfer operation to an out-of-state firm. Legislators blocked the contract that Gov. Asa Hutchinson preferred after a pitched battle. Hutchinson responded by having the state take over operation of the lockups. South Arkansas Youth Services of Magnolia, one of those that lost the work, was a lobbying client of Cranford.

Arkansas Business has reported that Cranford's biography matches that of an unnamed person described in the recitation of events in Neal's plea agreement.




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