County Judge Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV of Jefferson County will resign later this week, he said Monday, three days after a federal prosecutor revealed that Wilkins admitted taking $100,000 in bribes while he was a state legislator.
The 63-year-old former church pastor hasn't been charged with any crimes.
But in a letter dated Monday to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Wilkins said he was "profoundly sorry that my own actions make this resignation necessary."
Wilkins wrote that he had intended to resign effective immediately, but "at the request of some members of the Jefferson County Quorum Court," he made the resignation effective "at 12:00 a.m. Thursday."
Wilkins had announced in February that he would not seek another term in this year's election.
A Quorum Court member, Herman Ginger, said in an interview Monday that Wilkins told him about two weeks ago that "he was being investigated and it looked like things were not going to be good."
"What [Wilkins] was telling me was it's going to come out in the paper sooner or later," Ginger said.
Then on Saturday, when an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article reported the prosecutor's statements, Wilkins called Ginger "and said he was going to resign."
Ginger said he asked Wilkins to stay on a few days longer so the Quorum Court could set in motion the legal requirements for naming an interim county judge to fill out the remainder of Wilkins' term. Wilkins has held the office since January 2017.
"Hank's a good man. He has done his dead-level best to be a good county judge. He's just made some mistakes. We all make mistakes every day. But if you're in public office, you're held to a higher standard. And you should be," Ginger said.
Ginger and other Quorum Court members interviewed Monday said they hoped to have an appointee in place in a week.
In accordance with state law, they're required to declare a vacancy and publicize information about the opening before holding formal discussions or interviews, said lawyers for the Association of Arkansas Counties.
Jackie Harris, the Jefferson County attorney, told the justices of the peace the same thing at Monday's regular Quorum Court meeting.
At least one Quorum Court member wanted to discuss the issue Monday.
"This is unprecedented in our experience. It's a sad day in Jefferson County, and I think we need to have a discussion," said Conley Byrd Jr.
Byrd's motion to go into executive session for discussion failed.
Other public officials in Pine Bluff said they didn't know about any federal investigation involving Wilkins until they read the newspaper article. They described feeling shock, anger and surprise.
Quorum Court member Ted Harden said he believes that Wilkins "knows we feel that resignation was the best thing, what with the outcry of the public and news media."
"It would be a horrible, horrible dark cloud over any meeting where he would preside," Harden said in an interview before Monday's meeting.
Dutch King, a former county judge running to replace Wilkins, said, "I'm mad. I am mad" about Wilkins' alleged admission of taking bribes. "How much of the taxpayers' money did he have to give away to get that kind of money?"
The $100,000 in bribes were given as donations to the Pine Bluff church where Wilkins was pastor, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich.
King, who faces Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson in the Democratic primary for the county judge's job, said he would like to bring auditors in to investigate every expenditure and contract since Wilkins took office. The winner of the King-Robinson primary has no Republican opposition.
State auditors have been working in the county judge's office for about a month conducting a routine audit, a spokesman for the Arkansas Legislative Audit office said.
In the past year, Wilkins has announced his retirement from St. James United Methodist Church and said he would not seek a second term as county judge. He said in February that he planned to pursue opportunities in the private sector.
Mohlhenrich made the statements about Wilkins' bribery admission during indicted lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford's arraignment Friday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Mo., as prosecutors asked that Cranford be denied bail.
Mohlhenrich alleged that Cranford plotted to kill one witness and persuade others, including Wilkins, to lie to investigators.
Cranford was arrested Feb. 21 in an alleged scheme in which executives for Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, a behavioral health care provider with 47 sites in Arkansas, paid bribes through Cranford's lobbying firms to obtain state grants and other taxpayer money. Cranford has pleaded innocent and remains jailed.
Wilkins made the bribery admission in a Feb. 22 statement to the FBI, federal prosecutors said. Cranford made donations to Wilkins' church that were actually bribes for his support as a state lawmaker from 2011 to 2015, his statement to prosecutors said.
Cranford's indictment and Wilkins' admission are "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," federal prosecutors said in arguing against Cranford's release.
Cranford had been an employee and manager of Alternative Opportunities, which was a predecessor organization to Preferred Family Healthcare, according to a spokesman for the company. Cranford has been a registered lobbyist in Arkansas since at least 2005.
Cranford also has been named in connection with a kickback scheme in Arkansas. Former 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 Arkansas General Improvement Fund grants for another company Cranford helped create called AmeriWorks.
Cranford hasn't been charged in that scheme. But former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale has been charged and has pleaded innocent. Woods and Neal are Republicans.
Wilkins, a Democrat, had directed a $50,000 General Improvement Fund grant to AO Dayspring Behavioral Health Services of Arkansas at Monticello in late 2013, grant records show.
Dayspring was an arm of the Preferred Family Healthcare/Alternative Opportunities nonprofit that treated substance abuse and other problems. The grant request came from Cranford, listed as CEO of AO Dayspring.
The Democrat-Gazette asked Wilkins last year whether anyone offered him kickbacks or bribes in connection with the $50,000 grant. Wilkins denied it.
"In our community, we've been facing a major drug and alcohol abuse problem," he told the newspaper then. He said he had interviewed providers to see who could help the Pine Bluff area and was "extremely delighted" with the responses from Dayspring and its related company.
"One of the things that impressed me [was] they would provide services in my district," he said in an interview. "If you look over my work in the Legislature, you're going to see literally dozens and dozens of bills I have filed for behavioral health issues and drug and alcohol prevention."
A 2009-10 biography of Wilkins showed he held the high-ranking position in the Arkansas Senate of assistant pro tempore. He was the first black elected chairman of the Arkansas Legislative Council, the main decision-making body of the General Assembly between official sessions. He held memberships on other powerful committees including Joint Budget, Senate Judiciary, Senate Children and Youth, Legislative Joint Auditing, and others. He served in the state House or Senate from 1998 to early 2015.
In 2001, the Pine Bluff Housing Authority renamed a building on its campus the Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV Community Center, the biography said.
Information for this article was contributed by Dave Hughes of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 03/20/2018
Print Headline: County chief to resign after graft admission