- Former state Sen. Jon Woods found guilty in federal corruption case
- Former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Jennifer Palmieri to speak at Clinton School
- Clarke Tucker releases new ad
- Estate gives UAMS $1 million for breast cancer research
- Sierra Club argues that important data missing from new ADEQ "State of the Air" report
- ACLU condemns Leslie Rutledge's attack on program for Dreamers as "extreme anti-immigrant agenda"
- Leslie Rutledge and Mark Martin applaud Supreme Court's stay allowing Voter ID to be enforced during primary elections
- Gan Nunnally slams primary opponent Rep. Jim Dotson for per diem shenanigans and Ecclesia ties
- Youth services nonprofit referenced in Wilkins bribery plea hired Sens. Lamoureux and Hutchinson to do legal work, former director says
Posted: 03 May 2018 01:27 PM PDT
Former state Sen. Jon Woods was found guilty today on 15 of 17 counts in his federal corruption trial. Consultant Randell Shelton Jr., on trial on related charges, was found guilty on 12 of 15 counts. They face up to 20 years in prison on each charge of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud; Woods was also charged with one count of money laundering, for which he would face a maximum of ten years in prison — still awaiting word from the jury on which counts they were found guilty. They could also be forced to forfeit any money or property they obtained through their actions.
Woods stood accused of participating in a kickback scheme in exchange for guiding state money to a small Christian college in Springdale, Ecclesia College, and to a nonprofit under the umbrella of Preferred Family Healthcare, a major provider of Medicaid-funded services in the state. Former state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty to being a co-conspirator in both schemes before the trial started and cooperated with the government. Oren Paris III, president of the college, pleaded guilty to being a co-conspirator in the Ecclesia scheme less than a week before the trial began cooperating with the government.
Shelton Jr. stood accused of participating in the Ecclesia scheme, with the kickback payments disguised as payments to his consulting company.
The jurors heard testimony that Woods and Neal directed $400,000 in public General Improvement Fund (GIF) money to Ecclesia in exchange for kickbacks. They also communicated by text message with their co-conspirators about directing additional GIF money to the college via other legislators, including identifying who would target which lawmaker and how much they would ask for. Paris also suggested that a good selling point would be that Ecclesia "produces graduates that are conservative voters" whereas "all state and secular colleges produce vast majority
None of the other legislators recruited for the GIF grab have been charged with a crime, but the efforts of Woods and Neal were quite successful. Between 2013 and March of 2015, the following lawmakers sent GIF money to Ecclesia: Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) sent $60,000, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) $60,000, former state Rep. Randy Alexander (R-Rogers) $26,500, Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) sent $25,000, Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) sent $14,000, Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) sent $13,500, Rep. Bob Ballinger sent (R-Hindsville) $8,500, and Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers) sent $10,000.
An additional $100,000 in GIF grants to the college was pushed through by former Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville), according to testimony heard by jurors, despite the fact that the grant applications were faulty. Lamoureux, who was Governor Hutchinson's chief of staff until May of 2016 and is now a lobbyist, has likewise not been charged with a crime.
Yet more GIF money was sent to the college by multiple former and current legislators later in 2015.
According to testimony from Neal, the GIF system was a "slush fund." Hester also testified for the
Jurors also heard testimony that Woods engaged in other efforts to steer money to the college, including passing a law that created an account in the state's Department of Higher Education for grants that would only be available to Ecclesia because of a particular designation it has as a "work college" (a program for incorporating employment for all on-campus students into the academic experience). Ecclesia is one of only seven such colleges in the nation and the only one in Arkansas, so the account was exclusively for the tiny Springdale school. Woods unsuccessfully made attempts to insert language into the ballot initiative for medical marijuana that would have steered marijuana tax money to the college. "I think it is great to take money from Satan and Kingdom of darkness and put it to Kingdom of God use," Paris told Woods.
According to the indictment, Paris disguised the kickbacks as payments to Shelton's consulting company. Neal testified that Shelton delivered two envelopes stuffed with $100 bills, totaling $18,000, to him behind his family-owned restaurant in Springdale, Neal's cafe. The total amount of the kickback payment to Woods was not specified by the government, but the indictment stated that it involved both cash and a $40,000 wire transfer.
The jury also heard evidence and testimony about another alleged kickback scheme, this one involving corporate entities associated with Preferred Family Healthcare, a Missouri-based nonprofit with a large footprint in the state's health care system, which has received (and continues to receive) tens of millions of dollars from the state in Medicaid contracts, general revenue funding, and GIF largess.
Woods directed $275,000 to an entity under the PFH umbrella and Neal directed $125,000. The grant application was originally drafted by
In addition to the kickbacks, the jury heard testimony that Cranford and Tom Goss (husband of
In addition to the GIF giveaways, the jury heard testimony that Woods and Neal tried
Justice Department attorney Sean Mulryne told the jury, "Mr. Woods used his office as senator as a legislative ATM." Woods' attorney argued to the jury that it was all legal and routine legislative activity and "there's sunshine on everything. ... It's all open. There is nothing behind the scenes."
Neither Woods nor Shelton testified. Woods's attorneys called an FBI agent who had admitted to wrongdoing in the investigation, but the judge had previously restricted discussion of that topic and there was little substantive testimony. Paris was also called by the defense but asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and otherwise offered no testimony. Shelton's defense called a few character witnesses as well as someone who allowed Shelton to live in his basement apartment — crappy digs, the defense contended, for someone on the take.
Woods and Neal are two of the five former lawmakers who have faced federal charges related to improper use of GIF money.
Former state Rep. Hank Williams pleaded guilty Monday to accepting kickbacks. According to his plea agreement and statements in previous court proceedings, Cranford appears to be the lobbyist involved in arranging those bribes. He awaits sentencing.
Former state Rep. Eddie Cooper pleaded guilty to an embezzlement and kickback scheme involving Cranford and PFH. He awaits sentencing.
Former state Rep. Jake Files pleaded guilty in January on charges of wire fraud, bank fraud
Posted: 03 May 2018 11:57 AM PDT
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, will speak at the Clinton Presidential Center next week, May 10, at 6 p.m.
Palmieri will discuss her New York Times best seller "Dear Madam President," an imagined open letter to the first woman president which came out in March.
Prior to her work on the Clinton campaign, Palmieri worked as White House communications director under President Barack Obama, White House deputy press secretary for President Bill Clinton, and national press secretary for the Democratic Party. She is now the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
All Clinton School Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. You can reserve seats by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (501) 683-5239.
Posted: 03 May 2018 10:41 AM PDT
Yet another television ad released this morning by Clarke Tucker, the state representative running for the Second Congressional District. This is the advantage of a big fundraising haul.
Tucker is vying for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Rep. French Hill. The ad itself is more or less boilerplate stuff, but it's clear that Tucker — facing off against three candidates in the primary who have positioned themselves to his left — is focusing squarely on the general election. The ad focuses on veterans and touts Tucker's bona fides as a bipartisan dealmaker. The bipartisan, working-across-the-aisle theme was also present in Tucker's first ad, released earlier this week, which dinged Hill for his vote to strip health insurance from hundreds of thousands of Arkansans.
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.
Posted: 03 May 2018 09:54 AM PDT
The estate of Linda Garner Riggs, a former Arkansas insurance commissioner who later worked for Stephens Inc. for 25 years, has made a gift of $1 million to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Riggs died in November. Her estate's gift will go to research into triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive former of cancer that does not respond to the most common hormonal therapies. It accounts for 20 percent of cases and is more likely to occur in young people, African Americans, Hispanics and persons with the BCRA1 gene mutation.
Riggs was a native of Fordyce. At one point in her 10-year career in state government, she was the legislative and budgetary director for Gov. Frank White.
Posted: 03 May 2018 07:28 AM PDT
The Sierra Club issued a response yesterday to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's 2017 "State of the Air" report, which was released last week.
The annual report, first issued for
"Although the report states that most pollutants have decreased over time and Arkansas is in compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards, it also leaves out important data," the Sierra Club stated in a press release. "Arkansas's coal-burning power plants, most notably Entergy's White Bluff and Independence plants, significantly contribute to ozone impacts across state lines in St. Louis and Memphis."
Glen Hooks, the director of the state's chapter of the Sierra Club, issued the following statement:
The key to improving air quality in Arkansas is ending our reliance on coal-generated electricity. If our air quality is improving, we can largely credit the decreased burning of coal in Arkansas and the recent shutdown of three old, dirty coal-burning plants in Texas that have polluted our state for decades.
Here's the full report from the ADEQ's Office of Air Quality:
Posted: 03 May 2018 07:06 AM PDT
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge promised during her campaign to "wake up every morning" dreaming up ways to sue the federal government. She's at it again this week, announcing that she is joining a lawsuit led by the Texas attorney general aiming to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The DACA program, created under the Obama administration, gives some legal protections to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, often called Dreamers. Without it, the 700,000 young immigrants participating in the program would lose eligibility for work permits and could force deportation. According to Department of Homeland Security data, there are an estimated 5,000 DACA recipients in Arkansas.
Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, issued the following statement, calling Rutledge's gambit "an extreme anti-immigrant agenda" and a "cruel attack on Arkansans and our values":
Once again, Attorney General Rutledge is wasting taxpayer money to attack Dreamers and end a program that is clearly constitutional and has overwhelming support among Americans. The Attorney General is advancing an extreme anti-immigrant agenda at the expense of Arkansas taxpayers and communities. This needs to stop. Dreamers are valued members of our communities, and America is the only home they've ever known. Attorney General Rutledge needs to abandon this cruel attack on Arkansans and our values. The ACLU of Arkansas will continue to stand in solidarity with Dreamers and all immigrants, and we urge our elected officials to do the same.
Posted: 03 May 2018 06:12 AM PDT
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State Mark Martin both issued statements applauding yesterday's decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that will allow the Voter ID law to be enforced this month, with early voting in the primaries slated to begin May 7.
Circuit Judge Alice Gray had last week declared the law unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction against its enforcement in the primaries. The Supreme Court granted a stay that reversed the injunction. It has not ruled on the underlying question of whether the law is unconstitutional, as Gray found. That decision will come later this year. In the mean time, the Court ruled that the policy can proceed. Voters will have to present a valid photo ID in order to cast their ballots this month.
Martin, who asked the Court for the stay, issued the following statement:
We are pleased with the Supreme Court's decision. Election officials across the state are continuing to prepare for the start of the early voting on Monday. We now have clear direction from the Court that the law we have been operating under since last August remains in effect for the Primary Election, until further orders from the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's prompt attention to this matter, on an emergency basis, gives the County Clerks and County Boards of Election Commissioners reassurance that the year-long preparations for the election have not been wasted.Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, representing the other defendant — the six-member state Board of Election Commissioners — had also filed notice today in Gray's court that she would appeal Gray's ruling to the Supreme Court, although she ultimately left that appeal to Martin. She issued the following statement:
I am very pleased that the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed with the arguments we made on behalf of the State Board of Election Commissioners that the requirement that a voter show photographic identification or sign a statement affirming his or her identity as a registered voter is not burdensome and helps ensure free and fair elections. The stay issued this afternoon provides needed clarity for Arkansas voters and election officials.In comments to the Democrat-Gazette, attorney Jeff Priebe, who is bringing the lawsuit challenging the law, pointed out that the underlying question of whether the law violates the constitution remains.
"We're disappointed that the secretary of state and attorney general continued to want to enforce an unconstitutional voter-ID law," he told the D-G. "We look forward to presenting the entire case to the Arkansas Supreme Court."
Posted: 03 May 2018 05:41 AM PDT
Gan Nunnally, who is challenging Rep. Jim Dotson in the Republican primary for the District 93 seat in Northwest Arkansas, passed along an open letter attacking his opponent for slopping up almost $40,000 in expenses charged to taxpayers on top of his $39,500 base salary as a legislator, the second highest tally in the state. Nunnally also goes after Dotson for directing public money toward Ecclesia College, the tiny Bible college in Springdale that is implicated in the ongoing federal bribery case against former state Sen. Jon Woods.
Dotson, himself an alumnus of Ecclesia, has not been charged with a crime but directed $13,500 in public money toward the school. Woods is charged with participating in an alleged kickback scheme to funnel public money to the school along with Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III and former state Rep. Micah Neal, who have already pleaded guilty. Part of the scheme, according to evidence presented at the Woods trial, was to convince other lawmakers to send yet more money to the obscure school, which has around 200 students (around half of whom are enrolled in distance learning); more than $700,000 in General Improvement grants went to Ecclesia over a fifteen-month period, allotted for dubious purposes.
Nunnally, the general manager of the Nunnally Chevrolet auto dealership in Bentonville, is running for office for the first time.
The open letter from Nunnally follows:
In my first entry into politics, I have started to see some of what frustrates current voters, and why Trump's "Drain the Swamp" phrase took flight.
Posted: 02 May 2018 08:09 PM PDT
The former director of a now-defunct youth services nonprofit that appears to be referenced in the federal bribery plea agreement of former Sen. Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV (D-Pine Bluff) denied any wrongdoing in a phone interview with the Arkansas Times on Tuesday.
Jerry Walsh, the longtime director of Magnolia-based South Arkansas Youth Services, matches the description of an individual referred to as "Person #3" in the Wilkins plea, which was announced Monday. (Here's the Wilkins information filed by federal prosecutors.) SAYS itself matches the description of a nonprofit referred to as "Entity F," which for many years contracted with the state Department of Human Services to serve delinquent and at-risk youth. In the plea agreement, Wilkins acknowledged receiving kickbacks from an unnamed lobbyist doing work on behalf of multiple unnamed nonprofits in exchange for Wilkins' sponsorship of beneficial legislation. The lobbyist in the alleged scheme — called "Person #1" in the plea — fits the description of Rusty Cranford, a Little Rock lobbyist and health care executive who has been indicted in a separate federal case.
Walsh acknowledged that SAYS held a contract with Cranford Coalition, a firm operated by Rusty Cranford, but said he knew nothing about Cranford providing kickbacks to lawmakers for favorable treatment.
Walsh said he met Wilkins a handful of times at the state Capitol and found him to be "a very pleasant man" but that he never talked to Wilkins about sponsoring particular bills.
Asked whether he or SAYS ever had direct business dealings with other legislators besides Wilkins, Walsh said the nonprofit had hired two Republican senators, both attorneys, in recent years: Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock and former Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux of Russellville.
Sen. Hutchinson's involvementSen. Hutchinson (who is Governor Hutchinson's nephew) matches the description of an unnamed "Senator A" in the Wilkins plea agreement. "Senator A" is not accused of any crime in the Wilkins plea. However, the document indicates this lawmaker closely corresponded with Wilkins and a lobbyist (who appears to be Cranford) in 2013 about three bills that Wilkins sponsored. Prosecutors say two of those bills benefited SAYS.
Walsh said SAYS hired Hutchinson as an attorney about a year and a half ago to help the nonprofit appeal the loss of a contract awarded by DHS and appeal Medicaid reimbursement decisions. It's been reported before that Hutchinson represented SAYS as an attorney in 2016, around the same time the youth services nonprofit was fighting a DHS decision to switch to a different provider to operate its residential facilities for delinquent youth (a decision that led to a political standoff and, ultimately, the state takeover of the facilities). Walsh said that when SAYS retained Sen. Hutchinson as an attorney, the senator made it clear he could not perform official government acts to benefit his clients.
"We had that meeting with him where he said what he could and couldn't do," Walsh said. "He could do legal work, but couldn't do bills on our behalf."
Asked whether SAYS retained Hutchinson as an attorney as far back as 2013 — during the time period covered by the Wilkins plea — Walsh said the agency "could have, but I never had any conversation with him about any legislation." Walsh said Sen. Hutchinson supported a major piece of juvenile justice reform legislation he opposed in 2013, the Close to Home Act.
"Hutchinson was chair of [the] Judiciary [committee] ... and he voted it out of committee," Walsh said. Committee votes are not available on the Arkansas legislature's website, but the record shows Hutchinson did not vote for the Close to Home Act when it came up in the Senate, along with most of his colleagues (including all of the chamber's Democrats and a number of Republicans).
The Close to Home Act would have potentially reconfigured the state's funding for youth services, and the state's politically influential youth service providers saw it as a threat, according to a 2016 article by writer Dick Mendel for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Soon after the bill's failure, the head of the Youth Services Division at DHS, Ron Angel, resigned; Angel had been a driver of juvenile justice reform efforts in Arkansas. The federal information in the Wilkins plea agreement notes that the Arkansas Youth Services Providers Association was also among the clients of "Person #1" (again, likely Rusty Cranford).
Walsh said he didn't care for the Close to Home Act but didn't lobby against it. "I didn't think it was a good bill … [but] I didn't talk to any legislators about it. I know the Youth Providers Association was against it. I know a number of [juvenile] judges were for it and others were against it," he said. "I just didn't, you know, get the dog off the porch and get in that hunt. ... I didn't get involved."
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