The indictment yesterday of Ted Suhl, whose mental health care companies received $135 million just since 2009 in Arkansas, illustrates sharply corruption at the highest levels of Arkansas government.
Two men, including a former state legislator and high Department of Human Services official, Steven Jones, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Suhl to bring him advantage in in-patient and out-patient counseling services. His method of operation could help explain why he got away for so long with questionable practices detailed over the years in Arkansas Times reporting. This included alleged improper use of physical punishment, religious-based programs and undue influence on high political officials, won through heavy campaign contributions and currying favor with people like Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was flown around on Suhl’s private plane.
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The news of Suhl’s indictment brought numbers of comments on Twitter yesterday from people who said they’d tried to blow the whistle on Suhl but were ignored or silenced in DHS. These are only Twitter allegations, but the circumstantial evidence of his power over the agency has been present for years, as reporting for us by Mary Jacoby, Leslie Peacock and others illustrated long ago.
The question of political influence over DHS comes up all too often — most recently in the conduct of state Rep. Justin Harris, who regularly used his political influence with DHS officials. His influence helped him win an adoption of children that turned tragically bad, so bad that what he finally did — giving away adopted children — has now been made a crime.
Suhl’s influence extended beyond merely lining his own nest. As an appointee in the Huckabee administration to the Child Welfare Board. he was part of its dominance by “religious” types. That led to discriminatory policies against gay people. They were deemed unsuitable to be parents. But the state let an accused felon and alleged child abuser who confused religion with sound therapy to get tens of millions in state money.
This is a page one story. It is also a story that presents more questions than will be answered by Suhl’s trial on relatively narrow charges of bribing Steven Jones and a former West Memphis council member, Phillip Carter.
Credit Gov. Mike Beebe. He instituted some changes in the system to service young people with mental needs. He also didn’t reappoint Suhl to the Child Welfare Board, as Suhl had tried to get Jones to arrange. Jacoby followed up on the Beebe efforts here in a wide-ranging article that included threats of lawsuit by Suhl’s then-attorney, Washington power player Bob Bennett. Mike Huckabee, the presidential candidate, still has a lot to answer for. But so, too, do the legislators (and in the beginning many were Democrats, as Jones is), who were enablers for him in the halls of the Capitol and squashed efforts to curb Arkansas’s excessive payments for in-patient mental health treatment at Suhl’s facility.
Suhl’s bribery of Jones, according to the indictment, went back to the spring of 2007, shortly after Mike Beebe became governor. (I originally wrote incorrectly that Mike Huckabee was still governor.) With help of an unnamed preacher, he repeatedly passed along money for help. What kind of help? He wanted Jones to intercede when a competitor — a community-based provider — got patient referrals in Northeast Arkansas. He wanted help in expanding the area served by a proposed facility in Forrest City. He asked for backing of legislation that would allow him to get work on a no-bid basis. He hoped, too, that Jones could be put in the position of overseeing Medicaid billing. He wanted to get back on the Child Welfare Board. Conversations Carter had with Suhl and Jones were recorded beginning in 2011 (Carter was implicated in an unrelated election crimes case that might have led to his cooperation in this case) and are quoted at length in the indictment. Conversations indicate Jones was working to establish a relationship with new supervisors.
PS — I’ve followed Suhl’s influence-peddling since at least 2006. He was getting $8.5 million a year then, which means his haul from the state overall has been well over $150 million. That’s why he gives so much, as I illustrated here. Warwick Sabin also wrote this cover story in 2006.