Columns » Ernest Dumas

Legislative boodlers

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Which sounds like the best use of your taxpayer dollars: helping pay for medical care for unemployed people, or bribing and lobbying legislators and other government officials to bestow millions of your tax dollars on a corrupt organization that claims it helps poor people who have drug problems or disabilities?

Sure, the question is a clever setup to make you sympathetic not to the political crowd but to the jobless folks, commonly known in today's political lexicon as deadbeats and welfare boodlers. But it is not an unrealistic statement of the options.

On the first of the month, Arkansas got some national attention for starting to kick poor people off government-subsidized health insurance for not getting on their iPads regularly and proving to the state that they are either keeping a steady job or else meeting some other bureaucratic formula to prove that they are not just lazy. Tens of thousands will lose their medical coverage, joining tens of thousands of others who have lost their coverage the past two years because they did not answer bureaucratic mail or electronic queries about their miserable status. Governor Hutchinson says the purpose is not to punish these malingerers for their poverty and indolence but to nudge them all into good-paying jobs and happy lives. The political crowd at the Pink Tomato Festival at Warren cheered that explanation Saturday, so it must be a good thing.

Simultaneously, lawmen were churning out more revelations about the crooks in and about the legislature and the executive branch who connived to funnel tens of millions more of your taxes, including those Medicaid dollars, to one or another "nonprofit" scheme to help the needy. Through lobbying, kickbacks and bribes, the schemers sent $43 million of your dollars last year to Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, Mo. A state senator who is one of three nephews of Gov. Hutchinson in the legislature got $500,000 for helping steer millions from Medicaid and other health services to the outfit. He says those were legal and consulting fees, not bribes.

It has been three years now since investigators started exposing the criminal enterprise that a sizable part of the state's fiscal system — its capital expenditures — had become. It started with revelations that a bunch of legislators in Northwest Arkansas were funneling some $700,000 to a man of God who was running a tiny Bible school called Ecclesia College in the woods west of Springdale and kicking part of the money back to legislators. He pled guilty to bribery.

So far, five legislators have been convicted of fraud or pled guilty, and still another, gubernatorial nephew Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), is accused by a lobbying friend of taking bribes from him.

The whole scheme, starting with the big state fund — GIF, the General Improvement Fund — that distributed all the money, was so convoluted that most people couldn't follow it or get much annoyed. Besides, they were all God-fearing family men, mostly Republicans, doing God's work. It didn't make sense.

For marking the sparrow's fall in the long-running GIF scandal, Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ought to get all the awards that newspapers love to pass out among themselves. In long articles for more than a year, he laid out in tortuous detail how the schemes worked.

Every year, the legislature and the governor budgeted state spending — mainly holding down school spending — so that a large surplus was left each July 1. The money was divided among the 135 legislators and the governor. Each legislator, through a sophisticated and largely secret scheme, designated the beneficiaries of his or her pot. Rusty Cranford, a lobbyist and consultant, would bribe or cajole legislators into earmarking their pots for his clients, mainly Preferred Family Healthcare. Legislators would introduce bills to alter state Human Services rules to favor PFH and then the agency would adopt the rules to make PFH eligible for even more money.

For his part, the governor chooses among a variety of capital appropriations where his share of the pot will go. Thompson reported that Hutchinson sent $2 million to a nonprofit that recruits new college graduates to teach a year or two in east Arkansas. His nephew Jeremy, who described himself as a consulting attorney for the nonprofit, sponsored the appropriation. The head of the nonprofit happens to be the Democratic nominee for governor.

The Supreme Court last year declared the whole GIF scheme unconstitutional. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to instigating the lawsuit.

This is a good place to point out that Medicaid and the other federal-state health services are commonly accused of letting conniving poor people defraud the taxpayers by claiming benefits they don't deserve. There is scant record of that occurring. The fraud perpetrated on taxpayers is from conniving providers, sometimes in cahoots with the leaders of government.

Maybe you remember The Lord's Ranch, a "behavioral health" program run with millions of your dollars by Ted Suhl, the godly friend and benefactor of Gov. Mike Huckabee and now a federal prisoner.

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