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Memory lane: When Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson heaped praise on nonprofit leaders now implicated in alleged kickback schemes

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:49 PM PDT

If you've been following the federal corruption trial against former state Sen. Jon Woods, or the indictment in a separate case against former Little Rock lobbyist Rusty Cranford, you may have seen the names Tom and Bonitea Goss.

The Goss's founded Alternative Opportunities, one of an array of corporate identities that was part of a network of healthcare nonprofits that has gobbled up tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid money, general revenue appropriations, block grants, and GIF giveaways in the state. Alternative Opportunities was eventually acquired by Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH) in 2015. Until they were fired in the wake of the kickback scandals, Tom Goss was the chief financial officer at PFH and his wife Bonitea was the chief operating officer. The husband-and-wife team were popular at the Capitol. Via its subsidiaries, Alternative Opportunities received more General Improvement Fund (GIF) money from state legislators than any other entity in the state since 2013 through its subsidiaries. And GIF is small potatoes compared to the Medicaid money and health care contracts. PFH and its affiliates have doubled the number of service sites in the state in recent years and now has contracts with the state's Department of Human Services worth $28 million. Since 2013, it has nearly doubled its total receipts from Medicaid and other state-administered health care programs to $43 million.

In fact, the Goss's were so popular that Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson took the time to sponsor a Senate Resolution in 2013 praising them. The resolution commended Alternative Opportunities for its "hard work and dedication" and was adopted by voice vote. The resolution decreed that upon being adopted, a copy of the honor was to be delivered to Bontiea Goss.

These were happier times.

Later, Woods and former state Rep. Micah Neal would face federal charges of participating a kickback scheme to direct GIF money to entities under the PFH umbrella (Neal has already pleaded guilty; Woods' trial is ongoing). According to evidence presented by prosecutors, the application for those grants was signed by Cranford and originally filled out by Bonitea Goss. In addition to the alleged kickbacks, prosecutors also presented evidence at trial that Goss and Cranford had greased the wheels for a high-paying job for Woods' fiancee. ("Senator is taken care of," emailed Goss to Cranford. "He is a new bubba for our team.") In addition to the grant money, the prosecution presented evidence yesterday that Woods and Neal sought $4.7 million in state grants and other public no-interest loans to move a thermostat manufacturer from Springfield, Mo., to northwest Arkansas. Two of that private company's board members were Tom and Bontiea Goss.

Meanwhile, Cranford was indicted in Missouri in a separate federal corruption case. Cranford, himself a former PFH executive, is accused of receiving $264,000 in secret kickback payments as part of a $1 million bribery scheme PFH was allegedly involved in. According to a plea deal by one of the alleged co-conspirators, three unnamed executives at Alternative Opportunities/PFH were also involved in the scheme. Both Tom and Bonitea Goss were placed on unpaid administrative leave late last year in the wake of the various kickback scandals, along with CEO Marilyn Nolan, and eventually fired.

The Goss's have not been charged with a crime in either case.

Now, obviously Jeremy Hutchinson couldn't have known back in 2013 that the Goss's and PFH/Alternative Opportunities were going to wind up popping up as relevant names in alleged kickback schemes. He just offered up a harmless resolution praising some powerful players at the Capitol. Which, really, was just a cherry on top to the GIF largess and Medicaid millions being directed to the PFH umbrella. The Goss's had a whole lot of bubbas on their team.

Don't miss the fourth annual Bentonville Film Festival

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:18 PM PDT

The Bentonville Film Festival truly has something for everyone - with over 100 films, music events and free activities for people of all ages. Co-founded by Academy Award winning actor Geena Davis with founding sponsor and presenting sponsor Coca-Cola, BFF champions inclusion in all forms of media and takes place May 1-6 around downtown Bentonville.

Details, schedules and tickets can be found at bentonvillefilmfestival.com.

Download the App in the App Store or Google Play and stay up to date on news, free stuff, ticket giveaways and local discounts for BFF App-users!

BFF will present ten World Premiere films from women and diverse filmmakers, which means Northwest Arkansas gets to see them before any other audience in the world. The festival also features Showcase Films including the Sundance Film Festival hits Blindspotting, Puzzle, The Tale and Hearts Beat Loud; more than 15 free Marvel films at the Skylight Cinema; free outdoor family films; and partner screenings with organizations including Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and Project Zero.

The festival includes nightly performances at the Coca-Cola Sound Stage at the Meteor, from up and coming diverse musical acts including Lauren Alaina, Alex Aiono, Run River North and a free finale concert by rock and roll legends Los Lobos, on Sunday, May 6th. A signature of BFF is its Discussion Event series, which features wisdom from influencers and changemakers, who are all striving to see inclusion in media become the norm. Highlights this year include Women In Film, The Future of Kids in Media, Workforce of the Future and NextGen – with panelists Jasmin Savoy Brown (The Leftovers), Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (Unreal) and Justin Prentice (13 Reasons Why.)

Last but not least, BFF provides outdoor fun for the entire family, with activities and giveaways from BFF's partners and sponsors, all week long, including STEAM activities, free movies on at the Sony & Orville Redenbacher Outdoor Theatre (at Lawrence Plaza), the 6th annual Peekaboo Magazine Kids Fest Street Faire, a Cinco de Mayo Celebration, pet adoptions sponsored by Mars Petcare, and BFF's first bicycle trail ride along the beautiful Razorback Regional Greenway Trail.

Get your tickets today!

HUD Secretary Ben Carson to appear in Little Rock on Tuesday

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:56 AM PDT

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson will be in Little Rock tomorrow, the office of congressman French Hill confirmed this afternoon.

Carson and Hill will tour Our House, the shelter for working homeless families and individuals on Roosevelt Road, at 12:15 p.m.

I'm awaiting word on whether the secretary will make any other public appearances.

Carson made headlines last week for announcing proposed changes that would require higher rent payments from low-income families receiving housing assistance and pave the way for local housing authorities to implement work requirements to receive benefits.

Donald Trump does the full Urko

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:30 AM PDT

One of the chief joys of NBC's "Return to the Planet of the Apes" in the 1970s was the character of General Urko, the bellicose ape in charge of hunting down the fugitive astronauts. Paranoid, blustering and seeing enemies all about him, his full madness erupted when he cried aloud, "They're out to get me! I know it!"

It's always possible that the writers of the show were inspired by Richard Nixon, whose presidency had ended in shambles just a few short years before, but after listening to President Donald Trump's stream of consciousness eruptions during his call to "Fox and Friends" last week, well, the only thing I thought of was Urko.

To see the interview:


Another of the perpetually angry guerrilla's quotes came to mind, as well:

"I will be revenged for this! I swear it!"

The comparisons between Trump and Urko are considerable. True, Trump hasn't yet had this troops fire on a live volcano, but give him time and opportunity.

In the meantime, our real life version of General Urko basks in Urko-like paranoia, self-congratulation and fear-mongering. There are those who worry that Trump may one day put a uniform on. Well, if he does, I can only suggest as headgear he try on one of the helmets from the Apes films/TV series.


Fun Urko fact

Urko was voiced by Henry Corden, who took over the role of Fred Flintstone after the original voice actor died in 1977.

And who says you don't learn anything from reading my stuff?


Today's Soundtrack

Listening to some of Joseph LoDuca's music for "Xena: warrior Princess." This is pretty good stuff.


Now on YouTube: Soldier on Service Dogs

My interview with a group which provides service animals for veterans.

On the Air: Soldier On Service Dogs


"On the Air with Richard S. Drake" celebrates 27 years years on the air in 2018.


Quote of the Day

"I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action." - Nero Wolfe, in Fer-de-Lance (1934), written by Rex Stout


Dems to debate tonight in 2nd District Congress and state legislative primaries

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 09:35 AM PDT

The four Democratic primary candidates for the 2nd District U.S. House race in Central Arkansas will debate for an hour tonight from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Candidates for four state legislative races will also face off, for 35 minutes each. (Facebook event page here.)

The congressional candidates for Arkansas's second district are Gwen Combs, Jonathan Dunkley, Paul Spencer and Clarke Tucker. They're vying for the chance to face Republican incumbent French Hill in the general election this fall.

Spencer, Tucker, Combs and Dunkley have already had one debate earlier this month, hosted by KATV. As David Ramsey wrote at the time, it was a mostly friendly affair.

There's also a plethora of Democrats running for statehouse primaries in Pulaski County this year, including the following candidates squaring off at Philander tonight:

State Senate District 30
-Sen. Linda Chesterfield (incumbent)
-Andre Pendleton

State Representative District 37
-Isaac Henry
-Jamie Scott

State Representative District 36
-Rep. Charles Blake (incumbent)
-Darrell Stephens

State Representative District 33
-Tippi McCullough
-Ross Noland

The event is open to the public and hosted by the Pulaski County Democrats, the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus, and Warhorse Creative.

Brickeys prison reports fourth apparent suicide by hanging in two months

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:06 AM PDT

Another inmate has been found dead "of apparent suicide" in a locked cell at the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys, the Arkansas Department of Corrections said this morning in a press release.

William Childress, 25, was found "hanging in a locked single-man cell" at approximately 3:30 a.m. this morning. The ADC and the state police will both be conducting investigations into his death.

Childress is the third prisoner at Brickeys found hanging in his cell this April. ADC found inmate Gavin Loverin dead on April 13. On April 11, Robert Ivy was found dead.

In March, another Brickeys inmate, Danny Ollis, was found dead, "hanging in a locked single-man cell where he was alone."

Childress was serving a 70-year sentence for a first-degree murder in Jefferson County.

The mysterious $80,000 wire transfer: Jake Files, the nursing home industry, and the "tort reform" ballot initiative

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:06 AM PDT

The Southwest Times Record continues its excellent reporting on a mysterious payment sent by a major player in the nursing home lobby to a company owned by former state Sen. Jake Files (previous coverage on Arkansas Blog here). Files pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this year to unrelated charges of wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.

An $80,000 wire transfer from a nursing home executive (a business partner of nursing home magnate Michael Morton) was sent to Files' company in 2014 just a week after an effort was filed to legislatively refer a proposed constitutional amendment to voters that would have limited damages in civil lawsuits. No one has been charged with a crime in the matter, which is not connected to Files' guilty plea on other charges.  But the situation looks smelly enough that a county prosecutor recently wrote a letter to a federal prosecutor asking whether the transfer had been made in "violation of federal law," an FOI request by the Times Record revealed.

Previous reporting by the Times Record uncovered the $80,000 wire transfer to Files' Fort Smith company FHH Construction from David Norsworthy, part-owner in more than a dozen nursing homes in the state with Michael Morton. The transfer took place on Nov. 24, 2014 according to documents provided to the Times Record. A week earlier, on Nov. 17, 2014, a resolution was filed by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, one of the nursing home lobby's most reliable soldiers, to send a proposed constitutional amendment limiting civil damages to voters.

That resolution ended up dying in committee (a follow-up attempt to get the measure on the ballot by petition was ultimately blocked by the courts). However, a similar effort in 2018, co-sponsored by Files, will be on the ballot as Issue 1 this fall, the so-called "tort reform" amendment. The measure is strongly supported by the nursing home lobby. It would impose caps on the damages that places like nursing homes would have to pay out if a jury found that abuse led to pain, suffering, or death.

Neither Norsworthy or Files would comment on the payment to the paper.

The wire transfer aroused the attention of Sebastian County Prosecutor Daniel Shue, who recently sent a letter to new Western District U.S Attorney Duane Kees asking whether the payment violated federal law. The Times Record FOI'd this letter, which was sent on April 10.

However that legal question is resolved, as a political matter, this looks pretty ugly. To review some of the tangled webs involved here:

Norsworthy — who in addition to co-owning nursing homes has also been a business partner of Morton's in a health insurance company for Medicare Advantage patients, Arkansas Superior Select — is a board member of Arkansas Health Care Association, the lobbying arm of the nursing home industry (which is now pushing hard for Issue 1). In 2014, when Morton's term was up for his seat on the state commission that oversees the issuance of permits to nursing homes, Governor Hutchinson tapped Norsworthy to replace him (Morton was under federal investigation at the time). Norsworthy continues to serve on that commission; his term is up this year but he plans to re-apply, according to commission staff.

Morton funneled large amounts of money to various candidates friendly to his interests, in part via a scheme arranged by Gilbert Baker, the former state legislator and lobbyist. The defrocked judge Mike Maggio pleaded guilty to taking a bribe to reduce a verdict by millions of dollars in a negligence case involving one of Morton's nursing homes, around the same time that Baker had arranged multiple contributions from Morton to Maggio for a planned campaign for Court of Appeals. Baker and Morton deny any wrongdoing and have not been charged.

Baker's partner, Linda Leigh Flanagin, was with Baker when they approached Morton about Baker's scheme to set up multiple PACs (thus dodging campaign contribution limits) that could funnel additional Morton dollars to candidates, including Maggio. In a deposition, Flanigan also described meetings she had with Morton to discuss efforts to enact "tort reform" to limit damages for maltreatment by nursing homes.

As for Files, about six months after his company received the $80,000 from Norsworthy, he received a $30,000 loan from lobbyist Bruce Hawkins, as first reported by the Arkansas Blog. Files used the money to cover hot checks. At the time, there was nothing illegal about a lobbyist making a loan to a lawmaker, though it was widely criticized at the time given the appearance of influence peddling (the legislature later passed a law to make such loans illegal). Hawkins' name came up at the periphery of the Maggio case, and federal investigators spoke with him during the investigation. Hawkins had used the same attorney Baker had, Chris Stewart, to set up a series of political action committees for a similar bundling scheme. Those PACs received some of the money aimed at Maggio. In a deposition, Hawkins testified that he moved to distance himself after he got tied up through news articles in the effort to aid Maggio, in part by a contribution made by Stewart from one PAC without Hawkins' approval. During the Maggio investigation, Hawkins told the Arkansas Times that he freely spoke to investigators, was not a target of that investigation, and had done nothing wrong.

Files got into his own hot water with federal investigators in a separate matter related to misuse of General Improvement Fund money appropriated by the legislature in 2016 and pledging a forklift he did not own as collateral for a $56,700 bank loan. Files admitted to misdirecting more than $25,000 in taxpayer money for a sports complex his construction company was supposed to build and pocketing GIF funds for personal purposes. He faces sentencing in federal court this summer.

Anywho. To reiterate, no one has been charged with a crime or wrongdoing related to this wire transfer. It's just that we have one of the most powerful players in the nursing home industry wiring $80,000 to a state senator who was struggling with financial problems and has admitted to being crooked. This happened in the middle of the push for the top priority of the nursing home lobby: Limiting damages in civil suits. No explanation has been given for the wire transfer; a county prosecutor asked a federal prosecutor whether it might be a federal crime. Files was one of a group of lawmakers who pushed for the nursing home lobby's priorities, and signed on as co-sponsor of the legislatively referred amendment that will be before voters this fall. Make of all that what you will.

Open line

Posted: 29 Apr 2018 04:22 PM PDT

On a quiet Sunday, here's a loud little article, "The Young Are at the Gates," written by the suffragist Lavinia Dock for the journal The Suffragist in 1917:
If any one says to me: "Why the picketing for Suffrage?" I should say in reply, "Why the fearless spirit of youth? Why does it exist and make itself manifest?" Is it not really that our whole social world would be likely to harden and toughen into a dreary mass of conventional negations and forbiddances–into hopeless layers of conformity and caste, did not the irrepressible energy and animation of youth, when joined to the clear-eyed sham-hating intelligence of the young, break up the dull masses and set a new pace for laggards to follow?

What is the potent spirit of youth? Is it not the spirit of revolt, of rebellion against senseless and useless and deadening things? Most of all, against injustice, which is of all stupid things the stupidest?

Such thoughts come to one in looking over the field of the Suffrage campaign and watching the pickets at the White House and at the Capitol, where sit the men who complacently enjoy the rights they deny to the women at their gates. Surely, nothing but the creeping paralysis of mental old age can account for the phenomenon of American men, law-makers, officials, administrators, and guardians of the peace, who can see nothing in the intrepid young pickets with their banners, asking for bare justice but common obstructors of traffic, nagger-nuisances that are to be abolished by passing stupid laws forbidding and repressing to add to the old junk-heap of laws which forbid and repress? Can it be possible that any brain cells not totally crystallized could imagine that giving a stone instead of bread would answer conclusively the demand of the women who, because they are young, fearless, eager, and rebellious, are fighting and winning a cause for all women–even for those who are timid, conventional, and inert?

A fatal error–a losing fight. The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates! 
What you got?

Clarke Tucker tells personal cancer story in new ad, promises to stand up to anyone in Congress "who tries to take your health insurance"

Posted: 29 Apr 2018 04:06 PM PDT

State Rep. Clarke Tucker, running for the Second Congressional District, will begin airing a new advertisement tomorrow (see above). It begins with his own story as a cancer survivor, then moves briskly to his bipartisan bona fides and a dig at U.S. Rep. French Hill, the Republican incumbent Tucker hopes to challenge in November.

"In Congress, I'll stand up to anyone who tries to take your health insurance," Tucker says. "And we'll work to finally bring costs down. Health care is a right."

While he doesn't name him, this is a clear shot across the bow at the incumbent. Hill voted for a House bill that would have completely phased out the Medicaid expansion that currently covers more than 200,000 Arkansans; increased the premiums that poorer and older Arkansans would have to pay for plans on the health care exchange; dramatically increased the co-pays and deductibles faced by low-income Arkansans; and enacted hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state's traditional Medicaid program (the program that existed prior to the ACA expansion, covering the elderly in nursing homes, low-income children, very poor parents, the blind, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations).

Polling has suggested that Hill may be vulnerable on this vote in what could be a close race.

In closing, Tucker says, "No child should miss Mom and Dad when Congress won't do its job."

Before he can challenge Hill, Tucker has to come out on top in the Democratic primary next month. Tucker is the favorite in a crowded field, facing off against teacher and activist Paul Spencer, teacher and activist Gwen Combs, and Jonathan Dunkley, a project manager at the Clinton School of Public Service.