Top Republican in Arkansas Senate sues after rehab program compared on TV to slavery

Posted: November 4, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

The top Republican in the Arkansas Senate filed a defamation lawsuit late Wednesday in Benton County court on behalf of his company after allegations that Hendren Plastics Inc. used participants in a rehabilitation program as unpaid workers.

Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette said his company, Hendren Plastics, paid for the work done by participants in the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program in Decatur and that the allegations against his company are not true.

The Wednesday filing accused attorney Timothy Steadman of Holleman & Associates in Little Rock of making "categorically false" statements about Hendren Plastics on Fort Smith-based television station KHBS-TV, Channel 40, that were an "assertion of fact and not a mere opinion."

Steadman's firm filed a lawsuit in Benton County on Oct. 23, after an article about the rehabilitation program was published by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The suit seeks class-action status. The organization highlighted the questionable practices of Oklahoma-based Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery, which reportedly modeled its nonprofit after the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program.

"These programs are supposed to help people combat addiction, not turn them into slaves for businesses that are unashamedly for profit," Steadman said during the TV news broadcast on Tuesday.

"Hendren and Simmons Food and the other business that use these men and women ... they control the employment," Steadman said later.

Hendren Plastics claims that Steadman's statements were defamatory and presented the company in a false light. The Gravette company is seeking damages resulting from its loss of reputation and character as well as punitive damages.

Attorney Tim Hutchinson of Reece Moore Pendergraft LLP filed the defamation claim Wednesday. He declined to comment Friday.

Neither Steadman nor Hendren were available Friday for comment.

Laurent Sacharoff, associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said the case is peculiar because Steadman's statements fall in line with his lawsuit.

"Normally, when people use [the word] 'slavery,' it's hyperbolic, so there'd be no case at all," Sacharoff said. "But here it's interesting because they're actually suing for slavery."

The lawsuit filed Oct. 23 in Benton County accused Hendren Plastics, along with Simmons Foods, and up to 30 "John Doe" companies of conspiring to use rehabilitation participants as a free labor pool for manufacturing jobs often described as dirty and dangerous.

On Wednesday the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit in Muskogee, Okla., federal court against companies that worked with rehabilitation programs that supplied workers.

Hendren on Monday terminated Hendren Plastics' agreement with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program in Decatur. Hendren said Tuesday he was disappointed because he saw the value in the program in that it gave nonviolent offenders a second chance.

"When you see these kind of things made against our company -- you can't allow those kind of attacks," he said Tuesday.

Business on 11/04/2017