Columns » Max Brantley

Corrupt Arkansas

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Arkansas jail blotters last week added a couple more names of so-called public servants.

First came state Rep. Mickey Gates (R-Hot Springs), charged with six felony counts of failing to file a state income tax return. He hasn't filed a state income tax return in 15 years.

Gates' status as a tax scofflaw wasn't exactly a surprise. The state has been filing tax liens against him periodically for years. In the latest felony counts, he's said to owe the state $250,000 or so in unpaid taxes, interest and penalties.

Alone among Republican leaders, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Gates should resign. Republican Chairman Chair Doyle Webb and Governor Hutchinson said the judicial process should run its course first. Nonsense.

Gates is entitled to due process on his criminal charges. But he doesn't dispute that he hasn't filed state income tax returns. He doesn't dispute that he's a tax deadbeat, though he has dog-ate-the-homework excuses.

Should Gates be in a position to pass tax laws that he doesn't obey? His protest of ignorance rings hollow when you know he introduced legislation in 2017 that would have reduced his exposure to unpaid tax recovery. Hutchinson, who extends no due process in his new Medicaid work rules to working poor who might not be able to find a computer to stay eligible, should be ashamed for covering for Gates.

Then came the indictment in Batesville of Robin Raveendran, a former executive of Preferred Family Healthcare. He allegedly oversaw a fraudulent billing scheme to enhance payments PFH received for community mental health services under the state Medicaid program. He knew the tricks. He had been director of Medicaid integrity at one point during a long career at the Department of Human Services. The prosecutor put the fraudulent charges at more than $2 million.

The state's Medicaid inspector general had some questions several years ago about PFH billing, but was driven into submission by lobbyists and legislators that we now know to be crooked. The attorney general's Medicaid fraud division ultimately made this case, but only after being delivered information by the federal public corruption task force.

For the longest, Hutchinson and his DHS refused to act against PFH. Raveendran's case forced suspension of the company, which draws $43 million a year in taxpayer money. This will create hardships for 4,000 employees and thousands of clients. But it was an outrage that an organization that had grown fat off illegal activities was able to hold onto its state contract, unwitting though many employees might have been.

It's not like funny business at PFH was a surprise. Two lobbyists and one accountant for the company had pleaded guilty to illegal use of money flowing from the enterprise. Three top executives had been fired and one had been suspended (belatedly, after reporting by the Times' David Ramsey). Four state legislators had pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes related to PFH. The PFH pay sheet includes at least three other legislators, and numerous legislators helped money flow to the outfit. Relatives of high executives larded the company payroll. Yet PFH remained protected until Friday of last week.

Jon Comstock, a Democrat who's challenging Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers), has called for creation of an explicit online accounting of every grant doled out by every legislator from the scandal-ridden General Improvement Fund.

Where's the state official calling for recovery of the taxpayer money sent, after kickbacks, to a little church in Springdale that operates as the tiny Ecclesia College? A full audit of GIF and PFH would draw needed attention to all the legislators involved in shoveling money to outfits like Preferred Family Healthcare.

Close attention might discourage others (including players from the bloodsucking nursing home industry) from excessive profiteering on the lucrative business of Medicaid-financed mental health care.

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