Linda Satter of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning on the transcript of a hearing filed in federal court in the bribery case against Ted Suhl, whose government-financed mental health empire in Arkansas was shut down following guilty pleas by two people who say Suhl bribed them to influence the human services delivery system.
The transcript is not available on-line but Satter was able to read it in the clerk’s office and reports that Suhl was investigated by the feds for bribing “multiple” state legislators and employees of the juvenile court system. No names given.
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This was a “no kidding” moment for me. The Arkansas Times, often by its lonesome, has been writing about Suhl’s ill influence over Arkansas politics for better than two decades. A column I wrote outlining the tens of thousands he poured into legislative races to massage the outcome of legislation favorable to him predates our full entry to the Internet, so I can’t readily link it.
I can show you one investigative piece Mary Jacoby and Leslie Newell Peacock did on Suhl in 2009 . It was based in part on data we’d compiled dating back to the 1990s. The headline:
Big money, religion, presidential politics, high-dollar lawyers. They’re all part of the ongoing and expensive story of mental health care for kids in Arkansas.
Suhl particularly ran wild during the days of Mike Huckabee’s governorship. He sat on the board that oversaw the child welfare system and used that not only for business influence, but for a particularly pernicious influence in injecting his fundamental religious outlook into treatment of children. Policies and Suhl’s operation, the residential Lord’s Ranch, favored corporal punishment and fundamentalist religion and disfavored gay people. Suhl essentially regulated himself. Huckabee was rewarded with access to Suhl’s private airplane. For years, stories were told of Suhl influence in juvenile court placements, particularly by the critical intake officers who decided which residential institutions or community-based organizations would receive children in need of state-financed services. The federal filing indicates they had so many interlocking criminal theories to pursue, the prosecutors finally had to winnow it down to the path chosen for the pending trial.
Our 2009 piece is still a thorough assessment of how Suhl’s influence contributed to a ballooning state expenditure on youth mental health spending, all the while it was marked by reports of abusive practices.
A 2006 cover Arkansas Times cover story also chronicled the improvement of Suhl’s situation after Mike Huckabee became governor. Example:
As the relationship between the Lord’s Ranch and the state deepened, Ted Suhl’s political contributions increased and expanded to include legislators who would have a role in reviewing Medicaid policies and budgeting. In 2004, with the help of lobbyist Ron Fuller (who also was Huckabee’s chief fundraiser), Suhl directed over $43,000 in campaign donations to the state Republican Party and lawmakers of both parties, including members of the House and Senate public health committees. During the legislative session that followed, in 2005, the Lord’s Ranch got its $8.5 million.
When asked if Suhl’s political giving was intended to influence policy in his favor, Jeffus, the Medicaid director, said, “In general, anyone involved in the health care field, if they are concerned with how public dollars are spent, is going to want to know where public officials are going to stand on that.”
Two people are serving federal prison terms, including a former legislator, Steven Jones, for taking bribes from Suhl. Their cases led to the shutdown of Suhl’s empire. His trial next month may provide them a fellow inmate. Criminally guilty or not, his blight on the state was long ago a matter of record that most politicians ignored. You may decide for yourself whether Suhl’s money played a role.