Kickback-case lobbyist plotted murder, feds say

Posted: March 12, 2018 at 6:11 p.m.

Milton "Rusty" Cranford

Indicted lobbyist Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford tried to arrange the murder of an alleged co-conspirator in an illegal lobbying and kickback scheme, according to a federal court filing Monday in Missouri.

The intended victim was Donald Andrew “D.A.” Jones, 62, of Willingboro, N.J. Jones is a Philadelphia-based political consultant who accepted money embezzled from Preferred Family Healthcare for years, according to his guilty plea Dec. 18. Preferred Family is a Springfield, Mo.-based nonprofit firm operating substance abuse and behavorial health treatment centers in five states including Arkansas.

Three Preferred Family executives, not named in court documents, paid Jones $973,807 from February 2011 until January 2017, all taken from the nonprofit group. The money went to lobby lawmakers for Preferred Family’s benefit and their own, court documents say. The lobbying included campaign contributions to members of Congress, according to court records. Such lobbying isn’t allowed for entities such as Preferred Family receiving Medicaid and other government money.

Cranford helped arrange the deal between the executives and Jones. Cranford was the nonprofit group’s Arkansas lobbyist and a director of some of its Arkansas operations. Cranford received $264,000 in kickbacks from Jones in return for assistance in setting up the arrangement, according to Cranford’s Feb. 20 indictment.

Both Cranford’s indictment and Jones' guilty plea were filed in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City, where Preferred Family is based. Cranford was arrested by federal agents in Arkansas on Feb. 21 and is in custody in Kansas City, federal authorities said. He’s set for a bond hearing Thursday and federal prosecutors are asking bail be denied, based on his being a flight risk and he’s a danger to witnesses, according to their court motion filed Monday.

On Jan. 2, after Jones’ pleaded guilty but before Cranford’s arrest, Cranford called a felon of his acquaintance who isn’t named in court documents, according to Monday’s court filing. They arranged a meeting, which took place Jan. 9. That felon, identified in Monday’s filing as “Person A,” contacted federal authorities before the meeting took place. The meeting was secretly monitered and recorded by the FBI, according to Monday’s filing.

“He’s in Philadelphia. He’s in south Jersey. (Whispered) He needs to go away. He needs to be gone,” Cranford said of Jones, according to the FBI transcript of the Jan. 9 meeting. Monday’s court filing says “While making this statement to Person A, Person A told agents that Cranford used his hand to make a gun-shooting gesture.”

The murder-for-hire scheme is under investigation in the Western District of Arkansas and no charges for it have been filed as of yet, Monday’s court filing says.

Cranford faces one count of conspiracy and eight counts of accepting bribes in his indictment. The $264,000 in kickbacks he received from Jones, federal prosecutors say, went to either Cranford or his lobbying firms with some going to a former lawmaker who was an employee and business associate, Eddie Cooper of Melbourne. Cooper pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme on Feb. 12.

Nathan Garrett of Kansas City, Mo., is Cranford’s chief counsel. A request for comment by Garrett’s firm wasn’t responded to Monday afternoon or evening.

The payments from Preferred Family to Jones and to Cranford’s lobbying firms were entered on the nonprofit group’s books as consulting and training costs, according to Cranford’s indictment. In all, Cranford’s lobbying firms were paid $3 million from Preferred Family and its predecessor organization, Alternative Opportunities, for disallowed lobbying over the course of six years.

The intent of the lobbying was to steer taxpayer money, including grants, to Preferred Family operations. Jones lobbied members of Congress while Cranford and Cooper lobbied state lawmakers, according to court records.

In a related matter, court records say Cranford also played a role in the kickbacks case of former Arkansas state Sen. Jon Woods and state Rep. Micah Neal, both of Springdale. Cranford hasn’t been charged in that case.

Neal pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy Jan. 4, 2017. Woods faces trial April 9 over allegations he took a kickback in exchange for his and Neal’s support in getting a $400,000 state grant to a company incorporated by Cranford.

Cranford isn’t named in the indictment against Woods, but was mentioned by name in a pretrial hearing in the corruption case. Cranford was chief executive of AmeriWorks, a Bentonville nonprofit accused of paying kickbacks to Woods and Neal in return for their support in securing a $400,000 state grant. Cranford’s indictment makes no mention of the AmeriWorks allegations.

The Springdale office of Decision Point, a behavioral health provider run by Preferred Family, processed the AmeriWorks grant and received the $400,000 on AmeriWorks’ behalf. The grant was returned after federal investigators began questioning it, according to court documents in the Woods case.

Woods’ trial will include charges from a similar case in which he is accused of receiving kickbacks in return for grants from Ecclesia College in Springdale. Two of his alleged co-conspirators also go to trial on the Ecclesia-related charges: Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College, and consultant Randell G. Shelton Jr., formerly of Alma. Neal’s guilty plea included his participation in those kickback schemes also.

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