Steven Jones, a former deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services was sentenced today in a federal bribery scheme involving a mental health contractor, along with another east Arkansas man.
Jones served as a Democratic legislator before becoming a top official in the state’s largest agency; he was also a state appointee to the Delta Regional Authority and then worked as a senior vice president at Southern Bancorp. In short, he was a respected member of the community in a part of the state that’s suffered from a shortage of talent and leadership due to decades of economic woe, political dysfunction and depopulation.
Judge Billy Roy Wilson sentenced Jones to 30 months in federal prison and one year of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and bribery charges. Phillip Carter, a former West Memphis councilman and juvenile probation officer, was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison and two years of supervised release after pleading guilty to conspiring to bribe a public official — the official being Jones.
Both sentences were on the lower end of the ranges established by federal sentencing guidelines. Carter and Jones have cooperated with prosecutors’ ongoing investigation into another party in this conspiracy: Ted Suhl, the owner of two mental health companies. Suhl allegedly paid Carter to bribe Jones in return for inside information about DHS, which regulated his operations. In the narrative laid out in the government’s indictment of Suhl in December, Carter acted as a middleman between the health care provider and the DHS official. Ted Suhl’s jury trial is scheduled for July.
Jones was also ordered to pay a $6,000 fine. He could have received a much harsher financial penalty. Carter is to report to a federal correctional facility by April 4, Jones by April 18.
Steven Jones’ attorney, Rickey Hicks, called several character witnesses who related a long list of Jones’ civic-minded activities.
Former state Sen. Jack Crumbly, who formerly served as superintendent in the Earle School District, said Jones was “instrumental” in helping get an essential millage passed for the benefit of the district and helped start a tutoring program. “I think Mr. Jones has always exemplified the best of what the Delta has to offer,” Crumbly said, describing Jones as “a role model.”
Rev. Alvin Coldwin, a Forrest City teacher, said Jones had helped rescue his church from foreclosure. Little Rock Attorney Philip Kaplan praised Jones’ “devotion to public service” and said he was critical in rehabilitating the state’s Martin Luther King Commission while serving as DHS deputy director. Jones’ wife, Susan, a physician who runs a network of clinics in communities in east Arkansas, testified to her husband’s commitment to economic development in the Delta.
Jones himself apologized to the court for his “lapse in judgment,” saying “I should have taken the high road … I didn’t.” Nonetheless, he asked Judge Wilson to assign him community service, rather than prison time.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Jegley argued that Jones’ record of community involvement and public service also made his actions particularly reprehensible.
“He violated both the position of trust at the Department of Human Services, and the trust among the public at large. … He’s violated his position of trust as a role model to the public.” She also pointed out that Jones role in the conspiracy played out over the course of several years, with multiple payments. “This was not a situation where Mr. Jones had poor judgment … one time. He violated the law at least ten times and perhaps as many as 20.”
“For those reasons, he does need to be incarcerated,” Jegley said.
Judge Wilson agreed with Jegley. “No doubt Mr. Jones is a man of tremendous energy and tremendous talent,” he said, but because Jones violated the public’s trust, he must go to prison. Prosecutors recommended the lowest possible sentence for Jones, presumably as part of his negotiated plea, and so Wilson assigned him to 30 months in federal prison. “I have seriously considered giving him more [time] in light of the public trust,” the judge added, “but I think this is sufficient.”
The federal prosecutor’s press release is as follows:
TWO FORMER ARKANSAS OFFICIALS
SENTENCED TO PRISON FOR BRIBERY SCHEME
LITTLE ROCK—Steven B. Jones, a former deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (ADHS), a multi-billion dollar state agency, and Phillip W. Carter, a former probation officer in Crittenden County, Arkansas, and West Memphis, Arkansas, councilmember were sentenced today for engaging in a bribery scheme involving the owner of two mental health companies, announced Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick C. Harris of the Eastern District of Arkansas.
On Thursday, United States District Judge Billy Roy Wilson sentenced Jones, 51, of Marion, Arkansas, to 30 months in the Bureau of Prisons after pleading guilty to a two-count Information charging him with conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and honest services wire fraud and for federal funds bribery. Jones also must serve one year of supervised release and pay a $6,000 fine. Co-conspirator Carter, 47, also of Marion, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and two years of supervised release for conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and honest services wire fraud.
According to the plea agreements, Carter and a local pastor served as intermediaries in a bribery scheme involving Jones and Theodore Suhl, the owner of two businesses that provided inpatient and outpatient mental health services to juveniles. Jones admitted that, beginning in April 2007 and while serving as ADHS deputy director, he solicited and accepted multiple cash payments and other things of value from Suhl. Suhl provided the cash payments and other things of value to Jones through Carter and the pastor, and in return, Jones admitted that he agreed to perform official acts that benefitted Suhl and his businesses.
As part of their pleas, both Jones and Carter admitted that they and other members of the conspiracy concealed their activity and dealings by, among other things, holding periodic meetings at restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee, or in rural Arkansas where they would not be easily recognized; funneling the cash payments through the pastor’s church; providing the bribe payments to Jones in cash so that the transactions would not be easily traceable; and speaking in code during telephone conversations.
On Dec. 2, 2015, Suhl was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services fraud, three counts of honest services fraud, one count federal funds bribery and one count of interstate travel in aid of bribery and is awaiting trial. The charges and allegations contained in that indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The FBI’s Little Rock Field Office investigated both cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela S. Jegley of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas and Trial Attorney Edward P. Sullivan of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section prosecuted Jones’s case. Trial Attorneys Edward P. Sullivan, Lauren Bell and Gwendolyn A. Stamper of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section prosecuted Carter’s case.