Bribery of Public Officials Disguised as Business Contracts

Lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford pled guilty of bribery saying he made payoffs to several state senators, including Senator Jeremy Hutchinson.  Senator Hutchinson is the nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson and has been instrumental in helping the Governor to move conservative legislation to the left.

Senator Hutchinson has not been indicted and denies any wrong doing. He appears in Cranford’s plea deal as “Senator A.” It is clear only Senator Hutchinson matches the description of Senator A.

According to Cranford’s plea deal he paid $500,000 to Senator Hutchinson. Cranford says part of the scheme included his company Preferred Family Healthcare paying $9,000 per month to Senator A.  By calling the payments attorney fees, the payments would be hidden. Plus, Senator Hutchinson would not have to disclose the payments of “attorney fees” on his annual Statement of Financial Interest because the income would be lumped in with all income from his law practice. And under the ethics law you do not disclose how much money you receive you only provide a list of sources of income and whether you received more than $12,500 or more than $1,000. For Senator Hutchinson the reports only show his law firm name and that he received more than $12,500 from the law firm.

Reporters asked the Governor about the allegations and, according to the Democrat-Gazette, he had this to say:

“It is a complex case and so this needs to be reviewed much more carefully,” he told reporters. “But without any doubt, the allegations that are contained in the indictment and the factual statement are profoundly serious and undermine the system of legislative process that the public relies upon. It undermines the confidence that the public has in their government, so the allegations are very serious, and I am very troubled by the allegations that have been made,” he said.[i]

The Governor may be troubled by the allegations against his nephew, but he didn’t show any concern at all over public confidence in government as corruption charges have swirled around numerous politicians in the past several years. He certainly didn’t provide any support for two ethics bills filed in 2017 that would have applied to his nephew.

Two state senators were so concerned about corruption in government that they each filed an ethics bill.

  • Senator Bryan King’s bill would have required Medicaid providers (such as Preferred Family Healthcare) to disclose business dealings with public officials.
  • Senator Linda Collins-Smith’s bill would have prohibited an attorney-legislator (such as Senator Hutchinson) or a consultant-legislator from representing clients before the legislature. Senator Jeremy Hutchinson strongly object to the need for a restriction on attorneys.

Neither bill passed.

Not only did the Governor not offer any support for either bill the Governor helped defeat both senators in the Republican Primary. Sure, these two senators also opposed the Governor’s Obamacare Medicaid Expansion (now called “Arkansas Works”) but other Senators also opposed the program and did not get an opponent from Asa.

Rusty Cranford’s admission puts a cloud over every attorney-legislator and it puts a cloud over the entire legislature, as the public wonders what other business dealings are being done between legislators and lobbyist or the companies they represent.

MANY reforms are needed to shine a light on the actions of Arkansas public officials.

The two bills filed by Senators Bryan King and Collins-Smith are a good place to start.  And you don’t have to wait for the legislature to meet in 2019. The substance of their bills could be adopted in the form of a simple rule of conduct in the House and in the Senate. Either chamber could meet today, tomorrow, or anytime to adopt such rules. If neither the House or Senate is willing to make the reforms, then a single committee could adopt such a rule for its members the next time the committee meets. In fact, before filing his legislation in 2017, Senator King tried to pass his legislation as a new rule for the committee, Legislative Council.

There is no good excuse for the legislate not to pass these reforms immediately and quickly follow up with more restrictions on the conduct of public officials.

The only question is whether you will demand it.