- 'SENATOR A': Jeremy Hutchinson says pay for was for legal work. (Brian Chilson photo)
Rusty Cranford, the former lobbyist and health company executive involved in bribery and kickback schemes with various Arkansas legislators and others, entered a negotiated guilty plea last week in federal court in Springfield, Mo.
The criminal information documented hundreds of thousands of dollars steered to state lawmakers with the intention of aiding Preferred Family Healthcare, a nonprofit that employed Cranford. The nonprofit reaped $837 million in government money from 2008 to 2016 and $384 million in Medicaid alone in several states, including Arkansas. It is still receiving that money, though under new leadership.
Some of the names included in the Cranford plea are familiar: former legislators Jon Woods and Henry Wilkins, for example. Woods, a Springdale Republican, was convicted by a jury in May and awaits sentencing. Wilkins, a Democrat from Pine Bluff, pleaded guilty last month to accepting bribes. But the information also lists other unnamed persons and entities of interest, many with identifiable descriptions. Among them is "Senator A," who fits the description of Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), the governor's nephew. Sen. Hutchinson issued a statement through his lawyer that denied any wrongdoing.
And more corruption
Perhaps the most surprising name to surface in the wake of Cranford's bribery plea was Teach for America, a national nonprofit that enlists recent college graduates to serve as teachers in low-income schools. The federal information cites a 2015 bill sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson that appropriated up to $3 million in state funds to TFA of Arkansas, then a client of Cranford's lobbying firm.
Lobbyists are supposed to help their clients secure favorable legislation — but they're not supposed to pay senators to get the job done. The federal information states that from January 20, 2015, to April 2015, "Senator A" was paid over $44,000 by entities associated with Cranford. Much of that payment came in the form of legal fees paid to the senator, who is an attorney.
The director of TFA Arkansas at the time was Jared Henderson, a Democrat who is running against Governor Hutchinson. But the governor has a connection to the $3 million TFA grant, too: In January 2016, he announced he would fund the appropriation with his discretionary funds. The money itself was used to pay for new TFA teachers to be assigned to school districts in southern and eastern Arkansas.
Henderson acknowledged he had hired Cranford but said he had no idea Sen. Hutchinson had accepted payments from the lobbyist. "I really thought he was supporting us because we convinced him that we had a great mission and a good model, and to learn that he might have had other motivations is pretty enraging, to be honest," Henderson said.
And yet more corruption?
The Arkansas Supreme Court released a letter, submitted under seal by the state attorney general, that said an investigation is under way into an alleged attempt to bribe a member of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. The entity in question is Natural State Agronomics, which was not one of the five applicants awarded a cultivation license by the commission.
The letter surfaced in advance of oral arguments before the court Thursday in the ongoing case challenging the scoring process for marijuana cultivation licenses. The attorney general's office, which represents the commission, is appealing a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen that threw out the commission's choices. The state argues that the process was fair, despite allegations of conflicts of interest surrounding some of the commissioners. The Supreme Court had allowed counsel for parties in the case to see the letter and asked whether they thought it should be unsealed. Attorneys for three winning applicants said the letter shouldn't be admitted into the record because it was too late, and one unsuccessful applicant asked that the letter be released. Natural State Agronomics itself said the letter shouldn't be considered in the case.
Nothing to see here, though
The University of Central Arkansas hired House Speaker Jeremy Gillam as its $130,000-a-year lobbyist, effective this week. He'll quit his job atop the House to take the position at UCA. It will be a significant pay bump for Gillam, who earns $47,000 as speaker (plus per diem).
Legislators are prohibited from moving into lobbying jobs for two years, with one huge exception. Working for colleges and universities in a "governmental affairs" position doesn't constitute prohibited lobbying because they are state agencies. Welcome to the deepening Arkansas swamp.