Legislators urge senator from Little Rock to resign

Lawyer: Hutchinson staying

Posted: June 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, is shown in this file photo.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson should resign from his political position immediately because public confidence in lawmakers is eroding, a fellow state senator said Monday.

But Hutchinson's attorney, Tim Dudley, said the Republican lawmaker from Little Rock won't resign. Dudley acknowledged that his client was "Senator A," an unidentified lawmaker in a lobbyist's guilty plea document released last week in a federal case. That document claims "Senator A," who has not been charged, and other lawmakers accepted bribes.

"Public officials should not resign because of unfounded and unproved allegations," Dudley said in a text message.

Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, called for Hutchinson's resignation in a brief handwritten note that he handed to a reporter while both attended a legislative meeting Monday.

"I believe while any implied accusation or fact can be handled through our legal system, the distraction and tainting of the legislative body requires action now," wrote Rice, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hutchinson is chairman of the committee.

"I have told leadership we have a serious problem that public confidence is eroding and I think at the very least Sen. Hutchinson needs to resign immediately and let his legal problems play out away from the Legislature," Rice said in an interview.

A Legislative Council co-chairman, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, agreed with Rice.

"Ninety-nine percent of this body are good, honest people, but the perception that we are not is killing this body and it's just for the body's integrity that he should be asked to resign," Sample said. "It is not whether he is guilty or not. I am not wanting to be a judge or a jury."

But the Senate's leader, President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, had a different view in an interview.

"At this point, Sen. Hutchinson hasn't been indicted," Dismang said. "We do have a process, through our [Senate Republican] caucus, which would strip anyone that has been indicted from holding any leadership roles and at this point in time, I don't think anybody has enough information to fully state what should happen here."

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, who is in line to succeed Dismang as leader in 2019-21, is a cousin of Sen. Hutchinson. Both are nephews of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Sen. Hutchinson also is the son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Arkansas. Gov. Hutchinson told reporters Thursday that if "Senator A" is indicted, then he should resign.

"Right now, I continue to support the position that we adopted as a caucus, which upon indictment, we step aside from all leadership positions," Hendren said. He added that the Senate Republican caucus is to meet Friday.

The Senate has some work to do on "tightening up our rules and the culture," Hendren said. He said he has been working on rules changes for the past few months and hopes to release a proposal later this week to impose more reporting requirements and prohibitions regarding conflicts of interest.

Lobbyist Milton R. "Rusty" Cranford pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to one count of federal program bribery for his role in bribing Arkansas lawmakers from 2010-17.

In his plea statement, Cranford said "Senator A" accepted payoffs, along with former state lawmakers Hank Wilkins, a Democrat from Pine Bluff, and Jon Woods, a Republican from Springdale.

Sen. Hutchinson was an attorney under contract with Preferred Family Healthcare, Cranford's client and employer, until last year, the company has said.

The plea documents describe $500,000 in payoffs made to "Senator A," through bribes, fees and gifts that included tickets to the 2013 World Series. He was paid $7,500 a month as an attorney by Preferred Family Healthcare beginning in 2013 and that amount was raised to $9,000 a month in 2014, according to the plea.

Preferred Family Healthcare, headquartered in Springfield, Mo., is a behavorial health care provider with 47 locations in Arkansas. It also has operations in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois.

In a text message Monday, Dudley said, "Senator Hutchinson denies that he accepted any bribe or otherwise is guilty of any of the allegations made by Rusty Cranford.

"Mr. Cranford is a convicted felon who is trying to get his sentence reduced," Dudley said. "His allegations are not credible and are not true. Senator Hutchinson is presumed innocent and is in fact innocent."

In a telephone interview, Dudley said, "The overall allegation is that Jeremy Hutchinson received a half a million dollars as a bribe, [but] Jeremy did a half a million for legal work.

"If what was alleged in that guilty plea was a crime, no pharmacist could be in the Legislature and vote on a bill regarding prescription medications without being accused of taking a bribe."

Preferred Family Healthcare, formerly known as Alternative Opportunities, has numerous contracts with the state Department of Human Services and with school districts across the state, Dudley said and state records confirm. Sen. Hutchinson represented the company in lawsuits, property subleases and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, Dudley said.

Sen. Hutchinson also helped steer state funds to the nonprofit Teach for America, whose lobbyist was Cranford, according to court papers. Cranford's statement says "Senator A" sponsored a pair of General Improvement Fund bills in 2015. The sponsor of those bills, according to legislative records, was Sen. Hutchinson. Dudley said Sen. Hutchinson did not receive any money through Teach for America's payments to Cranford's lobbying firm.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jared Henderson was Arkansas director of the nonprofit at that time. In 2016, Gov. Hutchinson pledged $3 million to Teach for America from the governor's discretionary monies under the legislation sponsored by Sen. Hutchinson that would be matched by private donors, including Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter W. Hussman, Jr.

A spokesman for Gov. Hutchinson has said the state ended up giving Teach for America a reduced amount of $2 million, after the governor's staff determined the nonprofit didn't recruit as many teachers as it intended.

Neither Henderson, Teach for America nor the governor have been accused of wrongdoing in the federal case. Teach for America recruits college graduates from around the U.S. to teach in low-income school districts.

Dudley said Monday that the Teach for America grant, "that just confounds me."

"The Walton family was behind this," Dudley said. "Walter Hussman was behind this. ... It was non-controversial. Why would anybody need to bribe Jeremy Hutchinson for a bill that was so widely supported?"

Meanwhile, Henderson on Monday released a five-pronged ethics proposal.

He said he proposes changing state law to revoke a public official's pension if the official commits any crime relating to abuse of power; strengthening the under-resourced Arkansas Ethics Commission; and increasing the cooling-off period before a lawmaker can become a registered lobbyist from one year to equal the number of years served.

Henderson said he also wants to change state law to bar corporations from contributing to political action committees since they already are barred from contributing directly to candidates. He also would require any organization engaging in political activity to disclose its donors and make that information public.

"This past week was a low point following a period of pervasive political corruption infecting our state government," Henderson said in a news release. "Silence is not leadership. We must expect more and demand our leaders stand up to all wrongdoings with courage and integrity. Arkansans deserve meaningful action to root out corruption without regard to party."

In response, Gov. Hutchinson said in a written statement, "there are inaccuracies in Mr. Henderson's proposal -- specifically the amount of time for the legislator ban isn't one year it is two," under Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution.

"It is important to get ethics reform right and we should be reminded that just a few years ago there were major ethics law changes made by a senator who was later convicted of accepting kickbacks," the governor said, referring to Woods, who as a senator sponsored what became Amendment 94, the ethics amendment.

"I have previously stated that public servants must be held accountable and if someone is charged or indicted with a crime, they should immediately resign," Gov. Hutchinson said.

Information for this article was contributed by Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 06/12/2018