Former Pine Bluff lawmaker, county judge pleads guilty to accepting bribes related to GIF

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 936 views 

Another Arkansas politician has been caught up in the net of an ongoing federal investigation involving the handling General Improvement Funds (GIF) that has already snared four other state lawmakers, a Northwest Arkansas lobbyist and other conspirators.

On Monday afternoon (April 30), former state legislator Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept over $80,000 in bribes in exchange for influencing Arkansas state legislation and transactions, including steering approximately $245,000 in Arkansas General Improvement funds to his co-conspirators.

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland for the Eastern District of Arkansas, said the 64-year old Pine Bluff native also devised a scheme to conceal the bribe payments as donations to St. James United Methodist Church where the former lawmaker and Jefferson County judge served as a pastor.

“By misusing his elected office to line his own pockets, Henry Wilkins undermined the integrity of our political process and abused the public’s trust,” said Cronan. “The Criminal Division is committed to rooting out such corruption and holding those responsible accountable for their actions.”

As part of his plea, Wilkins admitted that from 2010 to 2014, while serving in the Legislature, he accepted a series of bribes from lobbyists and non-profit organizations that were transmitted both in the form of cash and checks funneled from lobbying firms to a discretionary fund held in St. James’ name where Wilkins had access to the deposited funds.

In exchange for the cash and check bribes, federal prosecutors said, Wilkins performed, and agreed to perform, official acts in his capacity as an Arkansas legislator including filing shell bills, sponsoring full bills, voting in favor of specific legislation, and steering approximately $245,000 in GIF funds to entities that funneled bribes to Wilkins through the church.

“Public corruption destroys the trust that is necessary for our republic. In this case, the citizens of Arkansas were betrayed by Mr. Wilkins, and elected officials who abuse their position for personal gain must be held accountable for that violation of the public trust,” Hiland said. “Investigating and prosecuting individuals such as Mr. Wilkins is essential to restoring confidence in elected officials. This office will continue to relentlessly pursue anyone who tries to undermine our system of government.”

According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report on March 17, Wilkins made the stunning admission in a Feb. 22 statement to the FBI that he accepted the $100,000 bribe from indicted lobbyist Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford of Rogers. That same day, Cranford was arrested on corruption charges in an alleged scheme in which executives for a Springfield, Mo.-based Preferred Family Healthcare paid bribes through his lobbying firm to obtain state grants and other taxpayer money.

Wilkins represented House District 17 from January 2011 to 2015. Before term limits, he served in the General Assembly from 2001 to 2011, first in the Arkansas Senate in the District 5 and 8 seats, and the final two years in the state House of Representatives.

Earlier this year, Wilkins also made the surprise announcement he would not seek re-election as Jefferson County Judge in 2018. He said his decision to resign was because of “opportunities in the private sector.” Wilkins has not responded to Talk Business & Politics inquiries concerning the federal probe, but Arkansas Democratic Chairman Michael John Gray last month called for the former Democratic lawmaker’s immediate resignation after news of his confession came to light.

Wilkins is the just latest state lawmaker caught up in the broadening federal investigation that has overshadowed the Arkansas General Assembly and the operations of Missouri-based health care charity at the center of the bribery scheme.

Just two weeks ago, Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH) announced that it had hired former Arkansas Chief Justice Betty Dickey as special assistant to the nonprofit health care group’s chief executive amid the federal probe involving the charity that has offices in Kirksville and Springfield, Mo.

PFH officials have declined to provide Talk Business & Politics with details concerning Dickey’s hiring, including her salary, job duties, and the timeline of her tenure. PFH spokesman Reggie McElhannon also said he could not yet provide details on whether Dickey’s duties relate to the ongoing federal bribery probe involving the nonprofit, where Cranford and his Little Rock consulting firm was paid more than $547,000 in fiscal 2016.

“Regarding more specifics about what types of changes that might be made, we’re happy to provide those once Betty has a chance to get her feet wet and work with (PFH CEO Mike Schwend) to make some of those recommendations,” said McElhannon. “Since she was just hired, its simply too early to say what specific changes we expect as that is the reason she was hired –  to work with Mike to determine specifically what those might be.

In late February, U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison for the Western District of Missouri announced that Cranford, a former PFH lobbyist, had been indicted by a federal grand jury for his role in a nearly $1 million bribery conspiracy involving the Missouri nonprofit. That indictment alleges Cranford and co-conspirator Eddie Wayne Cooper, a Democrat who served in the legislature from 2006 through 2011, received $264,000 in secret kickback payments from co-conspirator Donald Andrew Jones of Willingboro, N.J., who was paid nearly $1 million by the Springfield nonprofit in a bribery scheme that lasted almost six years, from February 2011 until January 2017.

In addition to the conspiracy, the indictment charges Cranford with eight counts of receiving a bribe by an agent of an organization that receives federal funds. At the time, Cranford was a lobbyist and an employee of PFH, formerly known as Alternative Opportunities Inc. He also served as an executive for the charity’s operations in Arkansas – a role similar to Dickey’s assignment.

Cooper also pleaded guilty in federal court in February for his role in a conspiracy to embezzle more than $4 million from the Springfield healthcare group. A few weeks earlier, Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, also pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of bank fraud, with part of the activity including use of GIF funds. Files’ sentencing is set for June 18 in Fort Smith with U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III presiding.

General Improvement Funds were also at the root of another investigation more than a year ago involving former Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, both Republicans from Springdale. Neal confessed to a kickback scheme involving GIF money, while Woods is fighting charges in federal court.

Woods was indicted by a grand jury on charges of money laundering and honest services mail and wire fraud in connection with a kickback and bribery scheme to steer GIF funds from the state legislature to projects supported through funding distributed by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District.

That indictment also named Oren Paris, III and Randell G. Shelton, Jr. as playing a role in the effort. Paris, 49, is the former president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, which received GIF funding. Woods’ trial began April 9 in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville. That case before U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks is expected to end this week.