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No need for retrial in Woods graft case, government argues

FBI coercion pitch all wet, U.S. says by Doug Thompson | June 1, 2021 at 12:17 p.m.
FILE -- Former state Sen. Jon Woods walks Friday, April 27, 2018, outside the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The issues former state Sen. Jon Woods raises in his request for a new trial were handled during the guilty plea by former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, according to a recent filing by the U.S. attorney.

Woods is serving an 18-year, four-months prison sentence. A federal court jury in Fayetteville convicted him May 3, 2018, on 15 charges of public corruption for taking kickbacks from state grants he directed to nonprofit groups.

Woods' latest retrial request claims that the FBI coerced Hutchinson into giving incriminating information about him. The information Hutchinson gave the FBI should have been protected by attorney-client privilege, Woods' motion claims.

Acting U.S. Attorney Clay Fowlkes responded that Woods raised the claims that the two cases are related and that FBI investigators acted inappropriately when Woods tried to intervene in Hutchinson's case before Hutchinson pleaded guilty.

The court in Hutchinson's case denied Woods' motion to intervene and Hutchinson's motions claiming FBI misconduct.

Woods was tried and convicted in the federal Western District of Arkansas. Hutchinson's case was in the Eastern District of Arkansas. Woods' request for a new trial was filed last month in the Western District.

Hutchinson was the attorney for the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Hutchinson and Woods, among others. Hutchinson pleaded guilty in July 2019 in three appearances in different courts to accepting bribes. Hutchinson is a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Both Hutchinson and Woods accepted bribes from lobbyist Milton "Rusty" Cranford, who also pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Four additional state legislators pleaded guilty or were convicted on corruption-related charges in the investigation. Twelve employees or former employees of a Springfield, Mo.-based nonprofit group now known as Preferred Family Healthcare have been convicted, pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial on corruption-related charges.

The graft involved at least $20 million taken from taxpayers or the nonprofit.

FBI investigators in the Woods case, based in the Western District, and FBI investigators in the Hutchinson case, based in the Eastern District, cooperated with one another, according to Woods' request for a new trial. The cooperation should have been disclosed before Woods' 2018 trial, the brief argues.

Hutchinson was an attorney for Preferred Family in 2014 when the investigation began. Preferred Family employed Cranford at the time.

Even if the government had acted improperly enough to warrant a new trial on the Cranford-related charges, the bulk of Woods' conviction rests on kickbacks taken from Ecclesia College, a Northwest Arkansas entity, the response argues. Hutchinson and Cranford had nothing to do with those kickbacks, the response argues.

In a related matter, Oren Paris III, the former president of Ecclesia College who pleaded guilty in Woods' case, was released Saturday from federal prison after serving most of his three-year sentence on one count of conspiracy, according to Bureau of Prisons records.

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