- RUSTY CRANFORD: His guilty plea turned over a rock in the state legislature and at Preferred Family Healthcare.
In a statement issued after the recent guilty plea of former Preferred Family Healthcare executive and Arkansas lobbyist Rusty Cranford, PFH spokesman Reginald McElhannon said the plea "contains admissions and allegations which demonstrate clearly the extent to which Preferred Family Healthcare was victimized by the actions of former employees and representatives of PFH."
However, the criminal information detailed by the government in the plea describes the activities of a "Person 5," believed to be Keith Noble, who remained with the nonprofit until last week. According to Cranford's plea, Person 5 was among those who "devised and executed multiple schemes to embezzle, steal, and unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of [PFH]." Though the information detailed by the government seems to describe him, Noble has not been charged.
The Arkansas Times asked PFH about Noble on June 11. The following day, PFH informed the Department of Human Services that Noble had been put on leave, DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said. On June 13, PFH released the following statement to the Times: "Due to information obtained by Preferred Family Healthcare relating to Dr. Keith Noble, an internal review was conducted by the organization. In response, Dr. Noble was placed on administrative leave effective June 12."
PFH — the nonprofit with a vast network of service providers in Arkansas paid with tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds, state grants and contracts with the state's Department of Human Services — has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing, but it has been at the center of a number of indictments and pleas in federal corruption cases involving lobbyists and former Arkansas lawmakers. Cranford admitted to bribery, kickback and embezzlement schemes involving PFH funds in his plea agreement announced June 7.
According to the federal information, Person 5 was a licensed psychologist who "was a consultant for the Charity before joining the Charity in 1994, and thereafter held the position of Chief Clinical Officer (CCO), responsible for overseeing clinical operations and the provision of services." During the period relevant to the criminal information, according to recent 990 tax forms PFH submitted as a tax-exempt charity, the chief clinical officer at PFH was Noble. A PFH statement from last year described Noble, a psychologist, as a "longtime executive"; a 2009 story in the Springfield (Mo.) Business Journal stated that Noble has worked for the nonprofit (under its former name, Alternative Opportunities) "since the early 1990s."
According to the government information, Person 5 was "responsible for overseeing clinical operations and the provision of services. Person 5 was responsible for quality control matters for the Charity's services, assisted in drafting the Charity's grant proposals involving clinical and medical grants, and was a signatory on the Charity's bank accounts."
Person 5 was a member of the "'Resource Team, often abbreviated 'R.T.,' ... used within the Charity to refer to the Charity's highest level of executive leadership." This description also matches Noble, a member of PFH's Resource Team.
Several key executives at PFH were fired in the wake of a plea agreement by Pennsylvania lobbyist D.A. Jones last year that implicated them in kickback schemes. Former Chief Financial Officer Tom Goss, former Chief Operating Officer Bontiea Goss and former Chief Executive Officer Marilyn Nolan were placed on administrative leave in November 2017 and terminated outright in January 2018. These executives have not been named by federal prosecutors, but information in federal court filings have made their identities clear. They are referred to as Person 1, Person 2, and Person 3 in Cranford's plea and federal information. They have not been criminally charged to date and deny wrongdoing.
After Tom Goss, Bontiea Goss and Nolan were put on leave, heading up the nonprofit was left to two longtime executives — Noble and PFH president Michael Schwend (who was later named CEO) — according to a statement in December 2017 from PFH. Noble and Schwend were tasked with overseeing more than 4,000 employees and 145 locations. When asked last week, McElhannon declined to say whether Noble was co-leading the nonprofit. He did note that in addition to naming Schwend CEO, PFH in April hired Betty Dickey, a former prosecuting attorney and chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, as a special assistant to Schwend.
State officials have suggested that the departure of Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Cranford represented a clean house at PFH. Governor Hutchinson's spokesman, J.R. Davis, was asked in May about the state's continuing to contract with the nonprofit after the conviction of former state Sen. Jon Woods in another case that alleged kickback schemes relating to PFH. "Preferred Family has changed its leadership team as a result of wrongdoing that occurred some time ago," Davis said. In a statement issued June 11, spokesman McElhannon said the actions of "former employees" of PFH did not represent the "values, actions or behaviors of our current leadership. ... Times have changed. We have changed as well. We have new leadership and have enacted significant measures to enhance accountability and compliance moving forward."
However, the government information suggests that the wrongdoing involved other executives, including Person 5:
• The government information states that Person 5, along with Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Eddie Cooper — a former state representative and employee at PFH — "embezzled, stole, obtained by fraud, and without authority knowingly converted to their own use, property worth at least $5,000 that was under the care, custody, and control of the Charity."
• Cranford's plea identifies Person 5 as part of the group that "executed multiple schemes to embezzle, steal, and unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the Charity," including misapplication of funds for unlawful contributions to political campaigns, illegal use of charity funds for lobbying and political advocacy, improper payments to Cranford related to properties he owned in Florida and Texas, improper payments to Cranford's lobbying firm, kickback schemes, improper payment of personal expenses with corporate credit cards, and more.
• The government information states that "other members of the Resource Team," in addition to Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan, were involved in paying "bribes in the form of money and other things of value to Woods, [former legislator Henry] Wilkins, Arkansas Senator A [Jeremy Hutchinson] and others." According to the information, "The composition of the Resource Team changed slightly over time, but throughout the period relevant to this Information, the Resource Team included Person 1, Person 2, Person 3 and Person 5."
A recent listing (since taken down) for a PFH affiliate, Decision Point, on a substance abuse resource website, stated that "the executive leadership of Preferred Family Care is comprised of five individuals who together form what is known as the Resource Team. ... Dr. Keith Noble, Michael Schwend, Bontiea Goss, Tom Goss and Marilyn Nolan comprise the Resource Team."
• Cranford's plea states that "other Charity executives" in addition to Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Cranford, paid bribes; that "by paying bribes ... other members of the Resource Team [in addition to Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan] ... enriched themselves, the Charity, Cranford clients and others"; and that "one of the purposes for which the defendant bribed public officials was to send additional income to the Charity to enable ... other members of the Resource Team ... to embezzle; steal; obtain by fraud" funds under the control of PFH.
In response to the Arkansas Times' June 11 question about Noble's role with the company and the allegations of wrongdoing connected to Person 5 and Resource Team members, McElhannon issued a one-page statement:
"The questions you pose center around confirming, either directly or indirectly, information in the government's court documents, so those questions are best posed to the U.S. Attorney's Office," the statement said in part. "As Mr. Cranford's court documents show, the efforts of former employees and representatives to use and abuse PFH for personal gain were extensive. The company continues to cooperate fully with the government in its investigation."
McElhannon did not reply to specific queries asking whether PFH disputed that Noble was Person 5 or whether the nonprofit disputed that Noble was involved in the wrongdoing described in the government information. The statement likewise did not reply to questions asking whether it disputed the government's statements that other members of the Resource Team (in addition to Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan) were involved in wrongdoing, whether those members were still employed by PFH, and whether any other employee other than Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan and Cranford had been terminated or left PFH in relation to the activities described in Cranford's plea.