Ted Suhl has been in the business of providing mental and behavioral health services to young people in Northeast Arkansas for decades. Thousands of teenagers have either passed through his inpatient facility formerly known as the Lord’s Ranch (now renamed Trinity Behavioral Health) or received outpatient services via Arkansas Counseling Associates. Now, Suhl stands accused of federal bribery, with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging he funneled thousands of dollars to Steven Jones, a top official at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, in return for gaining preferential treatment for his companies. That helped keep clients — and the Medicaid reimbursements they represented — flowing to Suhl’s businesses, according to federal prosecutors. Our account of day 1 of the trial is here. Read on for day 2.
Why are we paying so much attention to this particular trial? In large part, it’s because Ted Suhl’s connections run so deep in Arkansas politics. He was a longtime friend and political ally of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who appointed him to an influential position on the Child Welfare Review Board, and was a frequent donor to state legislative races. Suhl’s wealth was built on taxpayer dollars: Arkansas DHS, the state’s largest agency, paid his businesses over $125 million in Medicaid money between 2007 and 2011 alone, according to the U.S. government’s trial brief in this case. (That’s the period in which the criminal activity detailed in this indictment allegedly occurred.) And perhaps most disturbingly, rumors have swirled for years that some officials within the state’s juvenile justice system have been steering business — that is, troubled kids — towards his facilities in return for favors.
Today, the jury heard from one of those former officials: Phillip Wayne Carter, a former Crittenden County juvenile probation officer and West Memphis alderman who is currently serving a sentence in federal prison. Carter has struck a plea deal with the prosecution, admitting (in return for a lighter sentence) that he acted as a middleman in a conspiracy in which Suhl allegedly bribed former DHS Deputy Director Steven Jones. Jones, who has also cooperated with prosecutors in return for leniency, is expected to testify later in the trial.
The two men first met, Carter said, in 2001 or 2002 at a Christmas dinner at Texas de Brazil, a upscale Brazilian steakhouse chain in Memphis. The dinner was an event that Suhl sponsored for juvenile judges and court personnel, Carter said. (One wonders who those personnel and judges might be and whether they still hold their jobs today.) Thus began a lengthy friendship.
Carter told the court he was “instrumental in getting Ted’s company a foothold in West Memphis schools” and also in getting youth referred to Suhl’s companies. In return, among other things, Suhl provided Carter’s wife with employment for several years in a position in which she was paid $35,000 annually to occasionally answer a cell phone, according to Carter. He said he would often visit the Lord’s Ranch in Warm Springs as a juvenile probation officer to meet with clients, and would sometimes provide transportation for kids to the inpatient facility. When Suhl’s company began operating in West Memphis, Carter said, “I pretty much hand picked all but two personnel.” Carter is ordained at the 15th Street Church of God in Christ in West Memphis, and he’d also sometimes lead worship service at the Lord’s Ranch at the request of Ted’s now-deceased father, Bud Suhl; he’d be paid $500 per visit.
Most of that information was elicited from Carter by the prosecution by way of providing background information as to the two men’s relationship. The matter at hand in this case is much narrower: Suhl’s alleged payments between 2007 and 2011 to Steven Jones by way of Carter. But two points emerge again and again in the government’s narrative of how the bribery scheme allegedly unfolded: the Texas de Brazil and the 15th St COGIC.
Earlier in the day, jurors heard continued testimony from FBI Special Agent Phillip Spainhour, who led the initial investigation into the alleged corruption. U.S. prosecutor Amanda Vaughn guided Spainhour through an exhaustive trail of phone records and bank documentation illustrating a pattern that repeated itself 13 times from 2007 to 2011. There’d be a flurry of phone calls between the three parties — or rather, between Suhl and Carter and between Carter and Jones, but never between Suhl and Jones directly. There’d be a check written to the 15th St. COGIC from a company called Millenia, another business entity owned by Suhl; the amounts would range from $2,000 to $3,000. There’d be a credit card charge at the Texas de Brazil, typically $100 to $200. Then, an account at the 15th St. COGIC would write checks to Carter and/or to the pastor of that church, John Bennett (who died in 2014). A portion of those checks would be deposited in their personal accounts, and a portion would be received as cash back.
The subpoenaed phone and bank records illustrate those facts clearly. What’s missing is the final step in the alleged scheme, in which the cash is supposedly passed to Steven Jones. It’s only the final payment Suhl made, in September 2011, that provides the prosecution with the additional evidence it needs to assert wrongdoing occurred.
Jurors again listened to a wiretapped phone conversation from August 3, 2011 in which Suhl complains to Carter about a DHS policy that resulted in referrals — juvenile clients, that is — going to a competitor, Mid-South. “I’ll call Steve when I go to Little Rock,” Carter says. “You’re going to really have to press him on this,” Suhl tells Carter. (Later, on cross-examination, defense attorney Robert Cary emphasized another comment Suhl made in that conversation: “We’re not asking for anything special … it’s any provider. Whoever’s providing the best job needs to get the outpatient services.”)
After several more calls in the following weeks, Suhl and Carter traveled in September to Memphis, to the Texas de Brazil. The FBI had the restaurant under surveillance at this point, and jurors today were shown security camera footage obtained from the steakhouse. At that point, all three men were presumably unaware they were under FBI scrutiny.
In the video (which does not include audio) Suhl and Carter walk in and greet Jones, who’s already sitting at the bar. Suhl gives him a warm hug. The three men take a table. Prosecutors then cut to a later clip, in which Jones gets up and walks away from the table. Suhl gets up, walks over to Carter, leans down and speaks to him. He hands Carter something. Carter puts that something away — it’s a check that he puts in his sock, according to prosecutors — then gets up, walks away from the table and pulls out his phone. Jurors were played a wiretapped recording of that call; it’s with Pastor John Bishop at the 15th St. COGIC. “Bishop. Bishop. It’s going to be a great day. It’s going to be a great day,” Carter says. Bennett chuckles. “Alright,” he replies. The call ends.
Shortly thereafter, the FBI contacted Carter, who agreed to cooperate with investigators after being confronted.
On his cross-examination of Spainhour, defense attorney Cary pointed out a gap in the government’s argument. That September 2011 payment Suhl made to Carter? It never actually made its way to Steven Jones. Carter did deliver $1,000 in cash to Jones eventually — but the FBI provided the bills. Regarding the crucial final step of the alleged scheme, in which Jones received the money that originated with Suhl, there’s little to no paper trail. (There are four checks at the end of 2007 made out to Jones from the 15th St. COGIC, but these are mysterious: Jones told the FBI that the signature on these checks is not his. We’ll have to wait to hear more about this.)
“There is no evidence that Suhl and Jones had one conversation about money,” Cary said. He pointed out that Suhl made other payments to the 15th St COGIC that didn’t follow the pattern noted by the government (calls, check, Texas de Brazil credit card charge) in those 13 instances. In 2009, Bennett was engaged in a campaign to become a bishop in the Church of God in Christ, and the Suhl family donated some $40,000 to that campaign, records show. Jones, a member of the COGIC in Earle (Crittenden County), evidently was paid to do some work on the campaign (although he held a high-paying job near the top of the state government bureaucracy at the time.)
Cary noted that Phillip Carter was in financial trouble in the summer of 2011; he was “being chased by creditors” and behind on his mortgage, Spainhour affirmed. Cary also noted that there were no calls recorded between Carter and Suhl from May 2011 (when the wiretap began) to July. Carter left nine voice messages during that time, Cary said, and played one in which Carter speaks to Shirley Suhl, Ted’s mother. It’s a fairly nondescript call, except that at the end of it, Carter mentions an infamous name in local politics: Hudson Hallum.
The defense is eager to bring in the matter of Hallum, a former state legislator convicted of a tawdry voter fraud scheme in the West Memphis area. Carter played a role in that instance of wrongdoing, and Cary wants the jury to know about it. In the defense’s narrative, Carter was already in trouble and the FBI used that fact to pressure him to finger an innocent man, Suhl. But the prosecution argued that Carter’s cooperation with the FBI regarding the Hallum voter fraud scheme is separate from Carter’s cooperation regarding Suhl. We’ll likely hear much more about this tomorrow, when the defense cross-examines Carter.
Cary introduced another piece of evidence when cross-examining the FBI agent today: lengthy recordings of conversations between Carter and Pastor John Bennett after Carter had begun cooperating with the FBI. Carter, who was wearing a wire, talked to Bennett in February 2012. At that point, Steven Jones had also been confronted by investigators. The recordings are alternately damning and puzzling. Bennett seems to believe he’s done nothing wrong, but he also seems to repeatedly answer in the affirmative when Carter lays out the fundamentals of the scheme — that Suhl gave checks to the church and the church provided cash to Jones.
Bennett is the one co-conspirator that can’t give his side of the story, though, being dead — and the FBI never interviewed him before he died. The defense team wants jurors to ask themselves why not. (Spainhour told the prosecution that the FBI was actively working to approach Bennett at the time of his death.) Again, we’ll hear more about this as the trial unfolds.