Lawmaker corruption in Arkansas a topic at attorney general debate

Posted: October 11, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge revealed during a televised debate Wednesday that her office is investigating former lawmakers as part of an ongoing Medicaid corruption inquiry.

Both of Rutledge's opponents in the debate, Democrat Mike Lee and Libertarian Kerry Hicks, accused the incumbent Republican of not doing enough to prosecute corruption and wrongdoing at the state Capitol, where seven current and former lawmakers have faced criminal charges in recent years, but none filed by Rutledge.

Rutledge then took her opportunity in the opening minutes of the debate to highlight the work of her office's new Public Corruption Unit.

"We are currently investigating former legislators and legislators as part of our Medicaid fraud investigation," Rutledge said. "We will continue to investigate those individuals and hold them accountable."

In August, a deputy attorney general announced during a news conference that Rutledge's office was investigating one or more lawmakers, though at the time Rutledge declined to elaborate on whether those were current or former officeholders.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, Rutledge declined to provide further information about the subjects of her office's investigation.

Rutledge declined to say whether any of the lawmakers under investigation by her office had previously been named in public indictments, or whether investigators in her office had interviewed any lawmakers as suspects.

While Rutledge's office has yet to charge any state lawmakers, the attorney general has announced charges against three former employees of Preferred Family Healthcare, one of the organizations at the center of the federal investigation into kickbacks at the state Legislature.

During the debate, Rutledge faced criticism over her office's approach to ethics. Lee, her Democrat challenger, pointed to his own proposal for a package of new ethics laws, including a proposal to increase the maximum fines that can be levied by the state Ethics Commission.

Lee has criticized Rutledge for not introducing a legislative package while in office, something she has said is not in her purview as a member of the executive branch.

"We have a swamp of our own in Arkansas that rivals the swamp in Washington, D.C.," Lee said.

Hicks, the Libertarian candidate, said the attorney general's office "shouldn't have to wait for the FBI to take the lead" on investigations.

Rutledge was also prodded by her opponents to defend her involvement in several lawsuits by other state attorneys general against the federal government, including one suit that seeks to declare the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature health care law, unconstitutional.

"If Attorney General Rutledge is successful in that ... what that means is a quarter-million Arkansans will lose health insurance, the people of Arkansas will be less secure and less healthy, and the budget will explode," Lee said. "She needs to check first with [Gov.] Asa Hutchinson."

Rutledge countered that she had, in fact, spoken with Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, a fellow Republican, has continued the state's Medicaid expansion program, which uses federal funds under the Affordable Care Act to purchase private insurance for low-income Arkansans. He's also said he would like to see Congress repeal and replace the law.

"We must talk to Congress and make sure that when ... Obamacare is overturned by the [U.S. Supreme Court] because of this lawsuit that I am a part of, that Congress is the one making laws and they are implementing laws that don't overreach," Rutledge said.

Hicks said he did not feel Rutledge was being "effective" by suing the federal government.

Wednesday's debate was filmed by the Arkansas Educational Television Network at the University of Central Arkansas. It was aired Wednesday night. The debate will air again on Oct. 28, and is available to watch online. The election is Nov. 6.

Metro on 10/11/2018