West Memphis hires former legislator once convicted of bribery scheme

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 4,217 views 

West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon (left) stands with Tawana Bailey and former Arkansas legislator Steven B. Jones (right).

The city of West Memphis has hired a former legislator and deputy director of the state Department of Human Services who served nearly two years in prison for his involvement in a federal bribery scheme as its new business and communications director.

Late Monday (Oct. 21), West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon named Steven B. Jones to head the city’s new business and community relations department, which will also include Tawana Bailey as the city’s new community outreach Director. In announcing the new department, McClendon praised Jones’ legislative and business resume but failed to mention his conviction and prison time that preceded the ongoing Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH) corruption and bribery scandal that has ensnared several Arkansas lawmakers and state officials.

“When I took office this year, I promised to strengthen the relationship with our residents, business owners, parks and neighborhoods, identify the gaps in existing departments and services to ensure all residents and businesses have a better relationship with City Hall,” said McClendon, who was elected as West Memphis mayor in December 2018.

“By creating this department, we will do just that, leveraging our existing resources to serve our community effectively and efficiently by strengthening community involvement and citizen engagement,” McClendon said, adding, “We are ONE WEST MEMPHIS, #winningstreak.”

Talk Business & Politics reached out to McClendon’s office, Jones and the city of West Memphis for comment but did not receive a response.

According to a news release issued by the city of West Memphis, the new director’s position “will be responsible for conceptualizing, developing and facilitating the implementation of projects related to building better relations with our residents, business owners and collaborating with community support services and organizations, churches, and local schools.

“The new department is the hub for a more streamlined, coordinated community outreach effort, that will help promote city programs, and services throughout West Memphis and the Mid-South,” the statement continued, citing Jones’ half-page resume that highlighted more than three decades of experience in the business, government and nonprofit sectors.

“The Director of Community Outreach will be responsible for the fulfillment of our community relationship mission and will work successfully with representatives from various communities, organizations, businesses, and neighborhoods to the greatest extent possible,” the statement read.

Among the highlights included are Jones’ former position as senior vice president and director of programs at Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp, one of the nation’s largest Rural Development Banks that is now headed by former Arkansas House Minority Leader Darrin Williams. The city’s news release also mentioned that Jones was appointed by former Gov. Mike Beebe in 2010 as an Arkansas designee to the Delta Regional Authority Board.

This city’s press statement also highlighted several public and nonprofit boards that Jones chaired or served on the Arkansas City Council, the Earle and West Memphis Chambers of Commerce, the Arkansas Educational Television Network Commission, the Mid-South Community College Foundation Board, the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and the Delta Service Corps Board of Directors.

What the city’s news release failed to mention was Jones’ stint as a Democratic state legislator in the early 2000’s and his guilty plea as deputy director of DHS in October 2014 for providing official assistance in exchange for bribes from Theodore “Ted” Suhl, the owner of two businesses that provided inpatient and outpatient mental health services to juveniles that received $125 million in Medicaid reimbursements from the state.

According to his plea agreement, Jones served as deputy director of ADHS from April 2007 until July 2013. In his role, Jones solicited and accepted multiple cash payments and other things of value from the owner of two businesses that provided inpatient and outpatient mental health services to juveniles. The individual provided the cash payments and other things of value to Jones through two intermediaries, a local pastor and a former county probation officer and city councilman.

As part of his plea deal, Jones admitted that in return for the bribes, he provided official assistance, including providing internal ADHS information about the individual’s businesses. Jones further admitted that he and other members of the conspiracy concealed their dealings by, among other things, holding meetings at restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee, or rural Arkansas, where they would not be easily recognized; funneling the cash payments through the pastor’s church; providing the bribe payments in cash so that the transactions would not be easily traceable; and speaking in code during telephone conversations.

In February 2016, Jones and Phillip W. Carter, a West Memphis juvenile probation officer, were both sentenced by U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson of Little Rock to federal prison for their involvement in the bribery scheme involving state funds. For his part, Jones was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and given two years supervised release. Suhl was later convicted on bribery and fraud-resulted charges in July 2016, but had his seven-year prison sentence commuted this summer by President Donald Trump on the request of former Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Federal Bureau of Prison records show that Jones was released on the day after Christmas in December 2017. Based upon his sentencing, his two years of supervised release as a convicted felon will end on Dec. 26, 2019. McClendon said the new department headed by Jones is being created at no additional cost to taxpayers and will be part of community service efforts. No details were released on Jones’ salary or if other candidates were considered for the position. Besides Jones, Bailey will serve as the city’s community outreach director for the newly created department.

Although not related, the bribery and corruption scheme involving Jones is similar to the federal investigation involving lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford who bribed several Arkansas legislators in a Medicaid fraud. That ongoing fraud investigation has led to convictions and guilty pleas from six former legislators, including former Sens. Henry “Hank” Wilkins of Pine Bluff and Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock, the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Both Cranford, Wilkins and Hutchinson are still awaiting sentencing in the federal corruption probe involving Springfield, Mo.-based Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, Mo. PFH was one of Arkansas’ largest Medicaid recipients that reported more than $180 million in annual revenue before DHS officials suspended the Missouri nonprofit from the state’s Medicaid program last summer.