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story.lead_photo.caption Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Former state Rep. Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff took $100,000 in bribes from indicted lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford, 56, of Bentonville, given in the form of donations to the church where Wilkins is minister, an assistant U.S. attorney announced during Cranford's arraignment Friday in Missouri on corruption charges.

Wilkins, currently the Jefferson County judge, made the admission in a Feb. 22 statement to the FBI, according to government attorneys. That was the day after Cranford's arrest on corruption charges in an alleged scheme in which executives for a Springfield, Mo.-based behavioral health care provider paid bribes through Cranford's lobbying firms to obtain state grants and other taxpayer money.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Mohlhenrich asked Cranford be denied bail, citing an alleged plot by Cranford to murder one witness and convince others to lie to investigators. Cranford recently tried to influence Wilkins in that manner, Mohlhenrich said during the hearing.

In elaborating, Mohlhenrich told U.S. Magistrate David P. Rush that Wilkins told the FBI in his Feb. 22 statement donations Cranford made to the congregation were in fact bribes for Wilkins' support as a state lawmaker from 2011 to 2015. Wilkins previously served as state senator.

Cranford has a plaque in his honor on a wall at Wilkins' church honoring his contributions, Mohlenrich said. Wilkins is pastor at the St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff. He was not in at the moment, a receptionist at his county judge's office said at 4 p.m. Friday, but attempts are being made to reach him, she said.

Cranford pleaded not guilty to all charges. Rush will take the motion to deny bail under advisement and rule on it early next week, he said from the bench at the end of the hour-and-a-half hearing.

Part of the government's detention request stems from an alleged murder-for-hire plot under investigation, according to federal prosecutors. Cranford has also been mentioned by name in court proceedings involving two former state lawmakers in Arkansas accused of taking kickbacks from him, but hasn't been charged in the case.

Nathan Garrett of Kansas City, Mo., Cranford's attorney, argued the murder-for-hire accusation was a far, far stretch based on loose interpretations mixed with outright fiction. The felon Cranford supposedly approached for the job has no car and has to hitchhike to a store to buy groceries, Garrett said. Yet he was supposed to travel to south New Jersey, kill a prominent consultant there and escape without being detected if the government's contention is to be believed.

The only purpose of denying bail, Garrett argued, would be to increase the pressure on an alleged conspirator the government has been trying unsuccessfully to get to talk for years.

A federal grand jury in Springfield indicted Cranford on Feb. 20 on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of accepting bribes.

Cranford's 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," his federal prosecutors argued in a motion to deny his release.

The indictment against Cranford relates to alleged illegal lobbying for Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield. Preferred Family operates substance abuse and behavioral health treatment centers in five states, including Arkansas. It has 47 sites in Arkansas alone, according to the company's website. Preferred Family facilities in Arkansas received $33.4 million in Medicaid reimbursements in 2016, among other state and federal taxpayer funds, according to court documents in cases involving Cranford's alleged co-conspirators.

Executives of Preferred Family embezzled at least $4 million from the nonprofit group between 2011 and January of 2017, according to federal prosecutors. Most of the money went for illegal lobbying Cranford helped direct, the government alleges. The rest went to Cranford and his co-conspirators, according to Cranford's indictment and guilty pleas of two of his business associates in the case.

"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 government's motion to deny him bail says.

Cranford has been a registered lobbyist in Arkansas since at least 2005, secretary of state records show. His lobbying firms over the years include Cranford and Associates and the Cranford Coalition. Those firms' clients listed in his state reports consist largely of behavioral health care providers.

In 2007, Cranford became an employee and manager of Alternative Opportunities, a predecessor organization to Preferred Family Healthcare, according to a spokesman for Preferred Family. Preferred Family and Alternative Opportunities merged in 2015. The company has used the name Preferred Family since. Cranford's contract with the nonprofit company was terminated on June 2.

LOBBYING, KICKBACKS

The alleged illegal lobbying reached members of Congress from Missouri and elsewhere, according to documents related to the guilty plea of an alleged co-conspirator. Such lobbying isn't allowed for entities such as Preferred Family because they receive Medicaid and other government money to provide health care services to Medicaid recipients.

Cranford's two business associates who have pleaded guilty since December to corruption charges related to Preferred Family Healthcare are Philadelphia-based political consultant D.A. Jones and former Arkansas state Rep. Eddie Cooper of Melbourne. Both guilty pleas describe a then-unidentified Arkansas lobbyist who participated in Jones' and Cooper's crimes. Bail hearing documents filed Monday identify that person as Cranford.

Jones pleaded guilty Dec. 18 to one count of conspiring to defraud Preferred Family. Cooper pleaded guilty Feb. 12 to one count of conspiracy to embezzle.

Cranford helped arrange the deal in 2011 between the nonprofit's executives and Jones, according to Cranford's indictment. The intent of the lobbying was to steer taxpayer money, including grants, to Preferred Family. Jones lobbied members of Congress while Cranford and Cooper lobbied Arkansas lawmakers, according to court records.

Executives of Preferred Family involved in the scheme also lobbied by making political contributions reimbursed by the nonprofit group under the guise of reimbursement for business expenses, according to federal prosecutors.

The Preferred Family executives involved recorded the money taken from the nonprofit group as consulting and training costs, according to Cranford's indictment. In all, Cranford's lobbying firms were paid $3 million from Preferred Family over the course of six years, according to Cooper's guilty plea.

Cranford is accused of arranging $264,000 in kickbacks from Jones in return for Cranford's and Cooper's help in securing an agreement between Jones and Preferred Family Healthcare. Under the agreement, Jones, 62, of Willingboro, N.J., was paid $973,807 between February 2011 until January 2017, according to Jones' guilty plea.

Cranford or companies he controlled received $219,000 in kickbacks from Jones, according to Cranford's indictment. Another $45,000 went to Cooper, according to Cooper's guilty plea.

Cooper was a manager employed at Health Resources of Arkansas, a Batesville-based subsidiary of Preferred Family, and a member of Preferred Family's board for several years while the arrangement with Jones was in effect, according to Cooper's plea. He also worked for Cranford as a member of Cranford's lobbying firm, the Cranford Coalition, from 2011 to 2015. Cooper is no longer employed by Preferred Family.

Cranford's alleged murder-for-hire plot, under investigation in Arkansas, targeted Jones, according to a prosecutor's motion to deny bail. A month before pleading guilty, Jones had refused pleas by Cranford to lie to investigators, the detainment motion says.

In Arkansas, then-state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2017, to accepting a kickback in 2013 from Cranford. The kickback was in return for Neal's help in obtaining $400,000 in General Improvement Fund grants for a company Cranford presided over and helped create called AmeriWorks.

Then-state Sen. Jon Woods, also from Springdale, faces trial April 9 for his part in the same scheme.

Cranford has been mentioned by name in court proceedings in Woods' case, but hasn't been charged in that matter.

Cranford incorporated AmeriWorks along with "David Hayes," according to secretary of state records. The western Missouri U.S. Attorney's office confirmed Friday that is accountant David Carl Hayes, 59, of Springfield. Hayes was found dead at this farm near Springfield in November in an apparent suicide after pleading guilty June 12 of embezzling almost $3 million, including almost $2 million from Preferred Family's predecessor organization, Alternative Opportunities, where he oversaw mergers.

Federal investigators have made requests for months for working papers of as-yet unnamed Arkansas lawmakers in their investigation of General Improvement Fund grants. A recent court order on motions in the Woods case confirms that investigation is ongoing and far reaching.

The investigation isn't only looking into lawmakers who approved grants, but into recipients of those grants to make sure the money was spent as intended, according to the judge's order.

FINANCES, FIRINGS

Monday's detainment motion also says Preferred Family's "leadership" agreed to put three payments totaling $400,000 "to the trust fund account of Cranford's attorney, for Cranford's legal expenses" in connection with the federal investigation.

Paying Cranford's attorney was part of an agreement to terminate Cranford's August, 2016 contract with Preferred Family, according to the detainment motion. That buyout agreement was reached, the motion says, between Cranford and unnamed Preferred Family executives on June 2, 2017 -- five months after Neal pleaded guilty in the improvement fund kickback case and after Woods had been indicted for it in March of that year.

Garrett took exception to the characterization Friday, saying the money was put in trust to pay for all of Crawford's expenses and shouldn't be interpreted as some sort of legal defense fund.

The termination agreement also forgave a debt of $35,000 Cranford owed the nonprofit and a provision that Preferred Family would pay a $165,000 personal loan of Cranford's. The loan was secured with Preferred Family assets, according to the detainment motion.

Preferred Family's board placed three members of its executive team on administrative leave Nov. 9 and later fired them, both Preferred Family and the detainment motion confirms. The unanimous vote to place the three on leave came two weeks after government attorneys in Missouri briefed the nonprofit's legal team on its investigation, according to the detainment motion.

On Tuesday, Preferred Family issued a statement confirming the identities of the fired executives for the first time. They are: Tom Goss of Springfield, former chief financial officer; Bontiea Goss, former chief operating officer and wife of Mr. Goss, and Marilyn Nolan, also of Springfield, a long-time member of the nonprofit group's executive team.

Tom Goss' attorney, Christopher D. Plumlee of Little Rock, said in an email Tuesday his client had no comment on the case.

Bontiea Goss' attorney, Melanie Morgan of Kansas City, Mo., works for a law firm that has a policy of not commenting on active cases, a spokesman for her office said Wednesday. Morgan confirmed later by email she's representing Mrs. Goss but gave no further comment.

Attempts to find contact information for either Marilyn Nolan or legal counsel for her have been unsuccessful since Tuesday. Preferred Family has said in earlier statements that it is not allowed to disclose Nolan's personal contact information.

Rush scheduled the trial for May 7, but because of the complexity of the case, he expected that was likely to change.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Milton "Rusty" Cranford

NW News on 03/17/2018

Print Headline: Former lawmaker admits to accepting bribe

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