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story.lead_photo.caption Milton "Rusty" Cranford

Indicted lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford denies seeking the murder of a co-conspirator in an illegal lobbying scheme, according to a statement made through his attorney Tuesday morning.

Cranford, 56, of Bentonville is the subject of a murder-for-hire investigation in Arkansas, but hasn't been charged, according to a prosecution motion filed Monday in Missouri. That motion recommends he be denied bail on lobbying conspiracy charges.

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"Mr. Cranford adamantly denies the government's allegations regarding any attempt to harm, intimidate or interfere with a witness or to flee from these charges," reads a statement from Nathan Garrett, Cranford's Kansas City, Mo.-based defense attorney.

"The government's claims made to detain Rusty Cranford are full of hearsay from highly questionable sources, untested and unreliable aspersions, and mischaracterizations," the statement says. "While Mr. Cranford has much more to say in this regard, we will address these matters, along with the underlying indictment, in the course of litigation."

A federal grand jury in Springfield, Mo., indicted Cranford on Feb. 20 for one count of conspiracy and eight counts of accepting bribes. He is set to appear Friday for a federal court hearing in Springfield on whether he should remain in custody and to schedule further proceedings.

Cranford has considerable motive to flee beyond his indictment and the solicitation of murder allegation, Monday's detainment brief from the office of the U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri argues.

"Cranford is likely to face significant additional charges in more than one federal district, and advisory sentences of up to life imprisonment under the United States sentencing guidelines, should he be convicted," the motion says.

His indictment in the western district of Missouri "comes as part of a larger set of interconnected investigations and prosecutions involving public corruption and the misuse and embezzlement of public funds entrusted to tax-exempt charities, in the western district of Missouri, and in the eastern and western districts of Arkansas."

Cranford is a long-time lobbyist in Arkansas on behavioral health issues. The charges and allegations against Cranford made public so far are:

• An indictment for taking kickbacks from Donald Andrew "D.A." Jones, 62, of Willingboro, N.J. Jones is a Philadelphia-based political consultant. Cranford is charged with helping arrange for Jones to illegally lobby for a nonprofit organization barred from such political activity, Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield. Cranford is also accused of arranging $264,000 in kickbacks from Jones in return for Cranford and another employee's help in securing the agreement between Jones and Preferred Family Healthcare. This scheme was in place from 2011 to early 2017, according to the indictment.

• Hatching a plan to kill Jones after Jones pleaded guilty in the illegal lobbying conspiracy on Dec. 18. A month earlier, Jones had refused pleas by Cranford to lie to investigators, according to the detainment motion. That took place in a face-to-face meeting between the two men on Nov. 13 in Oklahoma City. Jones' attorney, Alan Tauber of Philadelphia, said Tuesday his client had no comment.

• Paying kickbacks in 2013 to two Arkansas legislators, Sen. Jon Woods and Rep. Micah Neal, in return for a $400,000 state General Improvement Fund grant they steered to a company Cranford presided over and helped create called AmeriWorks. Woods and Neal, both Republicans from Springdale, have since left office. Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2017, to his part in the scheme. Woods goes to trial April 9. Cranford has been mentioned by name in court proceedings in Woods' case, but has not been charged in that matter.

Monday's detainment motion confirms that Preferred Family's "leadership" arranged to pay Cranford's defense attorney $400,000 on June 2, 2017 -- five months after Neal pleaded guilty in the improvement fund kickback case and after Woods had been indicted in March of that year. A spokesman for Garrett's law office declined comment on whether Garrett was the beneficiary of the $400,000 trust fund.

Preferred Family is a nonprofit company operating substance abuse and behavioral health treatment centers in five states including Arkansas. Preferred Family issued a statement Tuesday.

"Preferred Family Healthcare continues to cooperate with the Department of Justice in its investigation into the actions of former executives and employees related to business operations. We believe that the investigation focuses on the actions of these individuals, who were employed or contracted with PFH's predecessor organization, Alternative Opportunities.

"None of the individuals referenced in the Department of Justice documents is currently affiliated with PFH."

NW News on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: Lobbyist denies murder plot

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