Ted Suhl has been in the business of providing mental and behavioral health services to young people in Northeast Arkansas for decades. Thousands of children and 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. On day 1 of the trial, the two sides laid out their narratives. On day 2, jurors heard details of the alleged bribery scheme. Day 3 focused on the testimony of Phillip Carter, a middleman in the alleged conspiracy.
Today, the jury heard from the prosecution’s key witness: Steven B. Jones, a former state legislator from the West Memphis area and the former second-in-command at DHS, Arkansas’s largest public agency. Jones said in a plea deal that he accepted bribes from Ted Suhl from 2007 to 2011, for which he was sentenced in February to 30 months in federal prison (a relatively short sentence, due to his cooperation). The fact that Jones has admitted to taking under-the-table payments from Suhl, while he helped oversee the regulatory apparatus responsible for monitoring Suhl’s companies, would at first seem to create an airtight case for the prosecution.
But then something odd happened. The prosecution only partially succeeded in getting Jones to reiterate that his relationship with Suhl was actually corrupt. When a government attorney asked him about his guilty plea, Jones said “at the time that I plead guilty, I thought I was guilty” but that he’s now not as certain. In part, he said, he pleaded based on “what was in the newspapers at the time.” Meanwhile, defense attorneys seemed intent on rehabilitating Steven Jones rather than discrediting him.
Last week, the court heard from Phillip Carter, the West Memphis man who acted as a middleman in the alleged bribery scheme between Suhl and Jones. Carter is serving a 24 month sentence on a own plea agreement of his own. Today, Jones admitted to U.S. trial attorney John Keller that he took cash from Carter — who he described as a “local con man” — that he knew originated with Suhl, and that was directed through Carter’s church, the 15th Street Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in West Memphis. Jones also confirmed that he attempted to give Suhl the impression that he was a valuable asset to have within DHS and that he could help Suhl’s companies. Keller asked Jones whether “[you did] things to give Ted Suhl the impression that you were valuable to his companies … that you were looking out for him on the inside?” Jones said yes, and confirmed that he did so because Suhl paid him.
It is less clear whether Jones actually did all that much of value for Suhl’s companies. As one of two deputy directors, Jones controlled half of DHS — but not the half with the most direct impact on Suhl’s companies. Medicaid reimbursements, which were the source of most of Suhl’s revenue, were under the purview of the other DHS deputy director, Janie Huddleston. Suhl also asked if Jones could get him reappointed to the Child Welfare Review Board, a position that he was previously appointed to by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s successor, Gov. Mike Beebe, did not reappoint Suhl. Jones told Suhl he’d look into talking to Beebe, but he told Keller, “I never got around to it.” (Among other things, Suhl also once asked Jones if he could take over Medicaid from Huddleston, who he believed was hostile to his interests.) As to why he’d lead Suhl to believe he’d look into the matter, Jones admitted that money “would have been a motivating factor.”
This is crucial. The prosecution needs to establish to the jury that Suhl thought his payments to Jones (via Carter and his church) were buying him real influence within DHS. The defense will surely focus on the fact that Jones said he mostly made vague promises to “look into” various matters while perhaps doing little of substance that can be proven. But prosecutors say that the bribery statute in this case simply requires that the bribe payor have intended to corrupt a public official with his money.
Keller also asked about a relationship that Jones had with Suhl before the alleged bribery scheme began. When Jones was serving in the state House of Representatives (before his DHS appointment) he had a contract with Suhl in which he was paid $1,000 per month. Jones said he didn’t do any work in return for the retainer fee. The contract didn’t last long and amounted to only “a few payments,” he said. (As a member of the legislature, Jones would have had direct influence over policy affecting Suhl’s businesses; such retainers are neither illegal nor unheard of.) When Jones was appointed to the deputy director position at DHS, he said, he contacted Suhl and terminated the contract. Keller asked him why. “I knew that Ted’s business had some business with the department. I didn’t know the scope of it at that time,” Jones said.
But under cross examination from defense attorney Robert Cary, Jones’ testimony took on a different tenor. Cary opened by asking Jones if he’d cooperated in part because the “U.S. government has suggested they might prosecute your wife,” a doctor in East Arkansas. Jones agreed that was the case. “I do know an FBI agent went to her office, and she was pretty intimidated,” he said.
Cary then described Jones’ career and his various public service roles: founding the Earle Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board of the Delta Regional Authority, serving on the Arkansas Educational Television Network Commission. Cary asked whether, as DHS deputy director, he would have met with Ted Suhl whether or not he received money from Phillip Carter. Yes, Jones said, noting that he had an “open door policy” in the position and gave out his card wherever he went. Cary’s most extensive line of questioning, though, concerned the 15th St. Church of God in Christ and its pastor, John Bennett, who died in 2014.
In the prosecution’s telling, Bennett was another co-conspirator in the bribery scheme. Suhl’s checks were made out to the bank account of the daycare at the 15th St. COGIC, which Bennett’s wife had direct control over. The pattern was as follows: A flurry of phone calls would pass between Suhl and Carter and between Jones and Carter. The three men would meet for dinner at the Texas de Brazil, a Memphis restaurant. Shortly thereafter, a check from a Suhl entity, Millenia, would be deposited in the 15th St. COGIC’s Child Care Development Center. Then, a check would be written from that account to Bennett, and Bennet would deposit it, with a large amount of cash back. Carter would pass the cash to Jones — or on some occasions, keep it for himself.
Those basic mechanics have been well established by bank and cell phone records, and Jones’ testimony today confirmed that the final step of the process (the most difficult to prove, since it is a cash transaction) did indeed occur. However, the defense wants the jury to question whether what’s described above really constitutes bribery at all. The defense says a crucial piece of context is missing from the story: Pastor John Bennett himself, and his campaign for a powerful position within the larger Church of God in Christ, bishop of the First Jurisdiction. Bennett was friendly with the Suhls, and the Suhl family donated some $40,000 to help Bennett in his campaign within the church. Meanwhile, Jones also knew Bennett well; he used his marketing experience to help design some campaign materials.
Jones told Keller, the prosecutor, that he took cash from Phillip Carter because of Bennett’s campaign to advance in the church. Jones talked to Ted Suhl in large part because he was trying to help the pastor, by his account, and he knew Suhl was helping fund Bennett’s campaign. Jones was first going to do the work “pro bono,” he said, but then Bennett said he had the funds to pay him — funds which came from Suhl. Later, on redirect examination, Jones said, “I never did anything for Ted. I wasn’t working for Ted.”
Is this coherent? Can Jones say, on the one hand, that he surreptitiously took money that he knew originated with Ted Suhl — a major medical provider that his agency was responsible for regulating — via “a local con man” and, on the other, that his acceptance of those cash packages were simply related to an ecclesiastical campaign? That’s for the jury to decide. But talking about Bennett also gives the defense an opportunity to mention two other points that it hopes work in its favor.
The first is religion. Defense attorney Cary has attempted several times to bring up the fact that Suhl is a devout evangelical Christian. Today, he mentioned that Suhl believed Janie Huddleston, the other DHS deputy director, was biased against him because of his religion. (Jones confirmed that’s what Suhl believed, but earlier said he never saw any evidence Huddleston treated Suhl unfairly.) Cary also dwelled at length on video and print campaign materials from Pastor John Bennett’s campaign that discuss the good works of the church. Last week, the defense played a clip of surveillance footage from the Texas de Brazil that showed Suhl, Carter and Jones bowing their heads before their meal. (This brought an objection from the prosecution.) It’s not hard to interpret such asides as subtle reminders to a jury in a highly religious state: Ted Suhl is a man of faith.
The second is the fact that Pastor John Bennett is dead. In a pretrial motion, the defense asked the judge to throw out the indictment because of a supposedly intentional delay in trial. “The Government was ready to seek an indictment against Ted Suhl three years ago, but it decided to wait until December 2015 to do so. By then, the most important witness in the case … was dead,” the brief says. “Had the indictment been timely brought Pastor Bennett would have testified at trial that the few thousand dollars in alleged bribes were not bribes at all, but were charitable donations to his church that were a drop in the bucket (less than two percent) of regular donations by Suhl and his family that exceeded $240,000 over nearly ten years.”
In its response pretrial, the prosecution cited the large volume of evidence it had to dig through to prepare the indictment, including a seizure of records at Suhl’s business that “resulted in the collection of evidence of potential crimes beyond those charged in the indictment” including possible bribes to a former state representative and “evidence of the defendant’s companies hiring family members of Crittenden County judges, prosecutors, and probation officers in exchange for those officials’ agreement to refer juveniles for counseling at Suhl’s businesses.” Judge Billy Roy Wilson denied the defense’s pretrial motion. But the defense team would still like to suggest that the prosecution intentionally waited to indict Suhl until Bennett died.