Ted Suhl and the mental health facility his parents founded in 1976 in Warm Springs (Randolph County), the Lord's Ranch, have been the subject of controversy since the facility was first licensed by the state to provide mental health services to youth in 1987. The recipient of tens of millions of federal Medicaid dollars, the Lord's Ranch (now known as Trinity Behavioral Services) has come under scrutiny for allegations since 1990 of improper restraints, physical abuse and punishment for those who opted out of Bible study, incidents related in DHS inspection documents released to the Arkansas Times in response to a Freedom of Information request in 2008. Suhl, a supporter of Gov. Mike Huckabee who once served on the board that licensed his facility, lobbied heavily to keep dollars flowing to institutional care.
Now, a former deputy Department of Human Services director, Steven Jones, has pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes from 2007 to 2013 from Suhl in exchange for information in the agency's records on Suhl's companies. Suhl was not named in the information filed in federal court in Little Rock by the U.S. attorney's office, but was referred to as "Person C." DHS confirmed Monday that "Person C" is Suhl.
Late Tuesday, DHS suspended Trinity and Suhl's other company, Maxus Inc., from the state's Medicaid program due to "credible allegations of fraud." Amy Webb, spokesperson for the agency, said that federal and state law authorizes the agency to "suspend or exclude a provider engaging in the alleged conduct described in the federal court filings." The agency is working out arrangements to transfer 80 inpatients and 2,300 outpatients to other providers. Maxus and Trinity will stay open until the transfer is complete. Suhl has 30 days to appeal the suspensions.
Trinity and Maxus have been paid a total of $135,642,337 for Medicaid inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services since 2009.
Webb said the FBI first got in touch with DHS earlier this year, interviewing some staff members.
Suhl's lawyer, Michael Scotti of Chicago law firm Freeborn and Peters, did not return phone calls from the Arkansas Times by press time. The Democrat-Gazette reported Tuesday that Suhl has denied wrongdoing through his attorney and was unaware of the investigation until last week, when Jones pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges set out in the information filed by the U.S. attorney's office. That information says Jones solicited the bribes.
Cherith Beck, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office, said Jones could be sentenced to not more than five years in federal prison and fined $250,000 and three years' supervised release on the conspiracy charge and not more than 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine plus three years' supervised release for the bribery charge. A sentencing hearing is set for April 2 in federal court.
According to the information filed in court, money was delivered to Jones from Suhl through two intermediaries, whose names were also kept anonymous: "Person A," a pastor and superintendent of a church in West Memphis, and "Person B," a former Crittenden County juvenile probation officer and West Memphis city councilman. The checks were made out to the pastor's church; the pastor then provided cash to Jones during meetings at restaurants, according to the information on file with the court.
The information includes a recorded phone conversation between Jones and Person B:
"PERSON B: Listen, this is what I called you about. Our friend got some concerns about the way some of the referral process is going in Northeast Arkansas. [Competitor company], it's like, everybody is obligated to give them to [competitor company]. I don't know if that's a move that was made by the state or what, but nothing has changed here in Crittenden County, we have a system of how we refer.
"JONES: I know you got that on lock (laughing).
"PERSON B: Yeah, yeah. [PERSON C] just had some concerns so, when you get home this weekend, if you can man, well it's state convocation [for PERSON B'S church] this weekend, so we probably won't get a chance to touch. But within the next two weeks.
"JONES: Yeah, I've actually been, I actually intended to call you a couple of weeks ago. Because some stuff, I told you I sit in on the monitor meetings now, because of [PERSON C].
"PERSON B: Right.
"JONES: And some stuff came up with [PERSON C] at the last ... not [PERSON C] personally, regarding [PERSON C'S] organization which is directed at [PERSON C] and I got the new monitoring reports yesterday. ... Monday, and I just haven't read them yet, but I was going to say, hell, you might, uh, get back on schedule."
Later in the conversation, Jones tells Person B he'll provide information on the internal reports about Person C [Suhl] and to let him know "of the stuff that's been said" about him.
Person B is possibly Phillip Wayne Carter, a former West Memphis city councilman who was sentenced in 2013 in federal court to three years' probation for conspiracy to commit election fraud in the case involving District 54 Rep. Hudson Hallum, who also pleaded guilty. According to the U.S. attorney's office press release on Carter's sentencing, Carter resigned from his position as Crittenden County juvenile probation officer as a result of the federal charges.
Beck said the U.S. attorney's office would not reveal the identities of Person A and Person B unless charges are brought against them. She confirmed that an investigation is ongoing. The Lord's Ranch claim of "Bible-based" therapy appealed to Huckabee, who visited the facility when he was lieutenant governor. A contributor to Huckabee's political campaigns, Suhl once provided the governor and his family jet transportation to a political event in Virginia. Huckabee appointed Suhl to the Child Welfare Agency Review Board in 2000 and reappointed him in 2004. The board licenses child care facilities — including Suhl's. Suhl's political moves extended to the legislature, where he lobbied heavily during the years Huckabee was governor (1996-2007) and in the early years of Gov. Beebe's administration to keep state Medicaid dollars flowing to residential care for the mentally ill.
In 2006, state Rep. Buddy Blair of Fort Smith convened a legislative hearing to look into the Lord's Ranch because, he said, he'd received "too many complaints" against it. One of those complaints, Blair told legislators, was that staff at the Lord's Ranch punished children by sitting on them, pulling their arms back or making them stand against a wall all day. Suhl attended the hearing, saying he would discipline staff if it were proved that the accusations were true.
In a 2009 article by Mary Jacoby in the Times — which she had reported for the Wall Street Journal but which the Journal lost interest in after it became clear Huckabee would not be a candidate for president — she quoted former Lord's Ranch patients as saying Bible study in the federally funded facility was not voluntary, since the other option was to stand against a wall all day. In 1993, a Lord's Ranch staff member reported to child welfare inspectors that a counselor threw a boy against lockers and hit him in the head. The DHS found the report credible.
In 2006, DHS received allegations by an Alaska youth that he'd been assaulted at the ranch and that he'd been taunted as "gay" afterward. The agency would not comment on the allegations, citing privacy laws.
Bob Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones case, was designated by Suhl to respond to Jacoby's inquiries for the story.
In 2007, the Child Welfare board defeated a proposal by state Sen. Sue Madison to make the board independent of the facilities it regulated. But with Huckabee out of office and Gov. Beebe in and determined to reform the state's delivery of mental health care, two other "Lord's Ranch bills" that would have codified a preference for institutional care and increased reimbursement rates for providers were defeated.
Since the publication of the story in 2009, the Times has continued to receive allegations by former patients of past physical abuse at the Lord's Ranch. None of the incidents alleged, however, had occurred in the past 10 years.