Columns » Max Brantley

Legislative influence peddling

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The Times’ Jennifer Reed reported last week on the supplier of a private jet that took Gov. Mike Huckabee and entourage on a recent presidential exploratory journey that was interrupted by engine trouble and an emergency landing.

The supplier was Ted Suhl, director of the Lord’s Ranch, a residential mental health treatment center for youths in Warm Springs, and there hangs a tale.

The Ranch had a series of disputes with the state before the Huckabee administration came along. The relationship has improved. The Lord’s Ranch now has an $8.5 million Medicaid contract and Suhl has been appointed by Huckabee to the Child Welfare Agency Review Board. The psychiatric director at the Lord’s Ranch also was named by Huckabee to the state Psychology Board.

When we reported this on our Arkansas Blog, readers came forward with more tips on Suhl’s political connections. We now know his giving extends beyond free gubernatorial charter service.

Suhl takes advantage of Arkansas’s lax campaign finance law (it allows corporate contributions) to contribute in the name of multiple corporate entities. This is hard to track by the secretary of state’s non-searchable database. But, at followthemoney.org, a public interest group has entered the Arkansas information into a database searchable back to 2000.

If you know where to look, the data show that Suhl and related entities have given more than $100,000 to Arkansas political causes since 2000. This includes $5,000 to Gov. Huckabee and his wife. It includes a whopping $26,000 to the Arkansas Republican Party. It includes $6,500 to the campaign to outlaw same-sex marriage.

But here’s the real eye-opener: Suhl and related interests contributed at least $43,050 in 2004 to candidates for the Arkansas legislature and the Arkansas Republican Party. Most of the money was given in late November, after it was clear which candidates had won. Suhl papered the vital public health committees of the House and Senate with gifts. In number, more went to the more numerous Democrats than Republicans. But Suhl almost evened the score in dollars — $22,300 for Democrats to $20,750 for Republicans — by putting $13,000 into the Republican Party. Suhl’s paid lobbyist was Ron Fuller, the governor’s chief money raiser.

Were the contributions intended to influence the 2005 legislature? They didn’t hurt. Despite some concern about the cost and effectiveness of residential treatment centers, Suhl’s ranch (and other residential centers) enjoyed exponential budget growth.

As we go to press, an unrelated legislative committee was planning to try again to push for more community-based mental health treatment and more accountability for residential treatment centers. The number of Arkansas kids in residential treatment is double the number expected in a state our size. It’s about the same as the number in Ohio, a state four times our size. State spending on mental health treatment for children has jumped from $100 million to $200 million in four years, the majority of it going to residential treatment centers. There’s inadequate certification and oversight, critics say. Also, residential treatment doesn’t include important family therapy that community-based mental health programs can provide for much less money, while keeping families together. We wonder, too, about the degree of religious instruction at the Lord’s Ranch and its need for a jet aircraft. Are we financing a self-enriching religious program with public dollars?

Suhl won’t talk to us. Rep. Buddy Blair, who hopes to raise some of these questions at a committee hearing scheduled after we go to press, says that previous efforts to look into this operation ran into constant roadblocks from other legislators. Suhl’s campaign contributions might explain why.


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