MIKE MASTERSON: Vanishing case

Now you see it ...

I've been furiously scratching the woolly noggin trying to figure out how the 2018 criminal investigation into an $80,000 wire transfer between Arkansas nursing home tycoon David Norsworthy, paid to the construction company of convicted former state Sen. Jake Files, abracadabra, poof! just vanished.

The facts behind the 2014 transfer of this sizable sum back when Files was in office have never been explained or apparently even investigated, even throughout Files' federal trial and conviction for bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.

The wheels for this inquiry that never occurred began turning five years ago after John Lovett with Fort Smith's Southwest Times Record obtained a document showing Norsworthy wired $80,000 to FFH Construction on Nov. 24, 2014. That was according to a First National Bank document disclosed in discovery that hadn't been been labeled confidential.

I'm by no means alone in wondering why the investigation into this well-publicized exchange between the nursing home mogul and a senator somehow never happened.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen has seen the Sept. 25, 2019, letter from Special Prosecutor D. Jason Barrett of Little Rock to Sebastian County Circuit Judge Stephen Tabor that described the results of Barrett's unrelated investigation into a $30,000 loan to Files from lobbyist Bruce Hawkins.

An FBI investigation determined Hawkins' loan at the time wasn't considered illegal. A new law now makes that kind of lobbyist-to-elected-official transaction a crime.

But Barrett's investigation also was to focus specifically on Norsworthy's wire transfer.

"A news release from Prosecutor Daniel Shue said specifically that the wire transfer from Norsworthy to Files was referred to Barrett by court order of May 29, 2018," said McCutchen. "The special prosecutor has full investigative and prosecutorial authority to pursue such cases. And the public deserves and demands this transaction be fully investigated.

"And if wrongdoing is found, both Files and Norsworthy should be held fully and fairly accountable. The public has the absolute right to know whether this $80,000 was a loan, a gift or a bribe and all the details surrounding that transaction."

McCutchen also told me the special prosecutor's concluding letter to Judge Tabor addressed the Hawkins $30,000 loan to Files, including a description of the FBI's role in scrutinizing that transfer, while inexplicably failing to address Norsworthy's wire transfer.

Oddly enough, Barrett also never made public his findings in that letter. "It seemed to me as if he thought the Norsworthy $80,000 wire transfer he was clearly assigned to pursue was going to go away," said McCutchen.

The press release from Shue dated Oct. 17, 2018, clearly states the $80,000 wire transfer from Norsworthy to Files had been referred to the special prosecuting attorney, McCutchen continued.

"As far as I'm concerned, one today has to ask the obvious questions how and why the special prosecutor failed to investigate this specific transaction and why his September letter to the judge that wrapped up his findings was not made public."

Lovett, in a news account the other day, reported that, in an email reply, Barrett told him no timeline could be placed on the reopened investigation into the Norsworthy transfer, but the state police would "move as fast as they can while still doing as thorough a job as possible."

McCutchen said the special prosecutor recently told him, "Arkansas State Police investigators got confused on their assignment" (apparently between investigating Hawkins and Norsworthy), which made no sense.

"How could those two cases, except for having Files in common, possibly be confused by any investigator? The news release plainly stated Norsworthy's transaction."

The attorney went on to say that when he initially asked Shue to investigate Norsworthy's transfer to Files, Shue said he had a conflict. That's when he referred the matter to the special prosecutor via Judge Tabor's May 2018 court order. Shue then issued his press release specifically aimed at investigating Norsworthy's fund transfer in October 2018. Seems clear enough to me.

I attempted to reach Barrett by phone, leaving a detailed message concerning the Norsworthy matter with his office. As of my deadline, I had not received a response.

You suppose it might be possible at the furthest reaches of impossible possibilities that a special prosecutor and state police investigators could somehow become confused by two cases related to Files, then wind up dropping the specifically assigned one altogether?

What does an Ozarks boy know about obeying court orders and such? And why wouldn't an aging columnist with increasing memory lapses of his own be able to relate to such a bizarre development?

Perhaps Barrett is right and the state police just became confused for well over a year on exactly who they were assigned to investigate. On second thought, that sure doesn't sound like any state police investigators I've ever known.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly how you'd like them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected].

Editorial on 02/02/2020

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