UPDATE: At around 5 p.m. today, a federal jury, after almost five hours of deliberation, convicted former mental health services provider Ted Suhl on four of six counts in a bribery prosecution mounted by a special public corruption team from the U.S. Justice Department.
Suhl was convicted on one count of federal funds bribery, one count of interstate travel in aid of bribery and two counts of honest services fraud. He was acquitted on a third count of honest services fraud and a conspiracy count.
His attorneys said they’d ask U.S. Judge Billy Roy Wilson to set the jury verdicts aside and grant a new trial as the first step in an appeal. Wilson gave the defense until August 22 to file its motion and gave the prosecution until September 22 to respond. Asked for a statement after the trial, defense attorney Robert Cary said only, “there will be an appeal, and we expect to win.” The grounds, Cary said, were “to be determined.”
Neither Suhl nor his family gave a statement when asked by a reporter.
Suhl has attracted negative attention for years. The Arkansas Times wrote here about his political influence. Mary Jacoby also wrote about his political connections with Gov. Mike Huckabee and some of the allegations of abuse that arose over the years about his residential facility, the Lord’s Ranch (since renamed Trinity Behavioral Health). The jury heard Suhl extol his operation during his testimony but was not allowed to hear about the abuse allegations.
During the four years covered by this indictment, 2007 to 2011, Suhl’s companies received some $125 million in Medicaid reimbursements from the state through the Arkansas Department of Human Services. The prosecution said Suhl intended to help his companies by funneling money to a top administrator at DHS, Steven Jones, by way of communicating through a middleman, West Memphis juvenile probation officer Philip Carter. Carter and Jones have pleaded guilty to bribery and are serving sentences in federal prison. The money that found its way to Jones originated with checks from a Suhl holding company, Millenia, that were written to a West Memphis church at which Carter was a deacon, the 15th St. Church of God in Christ. The defense said these were just charitable contributions by Suhl, a deeply religious man who gave freely to many good causes.
The count of federal funds bribery stems from the fact that DHS handles billions of dollars in federal Medicaid funds; it carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The two honest services wire fraud charges relate to two checks, one written in 2010 and one written in 2011, that traveled across state lines in electronic form. The jury found that a third transaction in 2010 did not meet the criteria, evidently. Those charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years apiece. Finally, the violation of the Travel Act occurred because Suhl crossed state lines to meet with Jones and Carter: Their meetings took place at the Texas de Brazil steakhouse in Memphis, Tennessee.
This morning, Amanda Vaughn of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section delivered the closing argument for the prosecution. Vaughn impressed upon the jury the point that Suhl’s intent is the key question in the federal statutes that were at issue in this case: Did he give money to Jones with the intention of influencing actions that Jones performed as a DHS administrator?
This was important, because the prosecution’s evidence that Jones actually completed official acts on Suhl’s behalf was limited. Prosecutors identified a number of matters in which Suhl appears to use Carter to solicit Jones to take some action. Those included: influencing Gov. Mike Beebe to reappoint Suhl to the Child Welfare Agency Review Board, obtaining monitoring notes from DHS pertaining to Suhl’s companies and (as Suhl put it himself in a wiretapped 2011 call) “putting the stop to” a policy by which DHS referred patients to a competitor of Suhl’s, Mid-South Health Systems. However, although Jones testified that he told Suhl he’d “look into” nudging the governor towards reappointing Suhl to the child welfare regulatory board, Jones also told the jury on Monday he knew Beebe wouldn’t actually make the appointment. The monitoring notes in question were likely documents Suhl could have obtained from DHS with an FOIA request. And no evidence was presented at trial that Jones actually tried to “put the stop to” the Mid-South referral policy. (Not stated by the prosecution, but worth noting: There could well have been other unknown matters of business between Suhl and Jones over the course of the four years during which the bribes were allegedly being paid, but before the wiretap of Carter’s phone began.)
But Vaughn said today that it didn’t matter what “official acts” Jones did or didn’t take. It only mattered what Suhl believed he was getting out of Jones. Keeping the DHS official on his payroll was an “insurance policy” for Suhl, she said, to make sure he had an inside channel at the state agency which provided the vast majority of his revenue. Suhl said on the stand on Tuesday that when he met with Jones, he was merely “venting” about DHS policies that he felt were discriminatory to him as an evangelical Christian. Vaughn rejected that account: One doesn’t complain to the second-in-command at an agency that regulates your businesses just to complain, she said. “You complain to get something done. And when you add money to get something done, that’s a bribe.”
She pointed out that Suhl never called Jones directly from 2007 to 2011. His meetings with Jones always took place through middleman Phillip Carter. Vaughn asked the jury why Suhl would feel the need to arrange his meetings with Jones, a high-ranking government official, with Carter, a small town probation officer. “You know why,” she told the jury. “Because this was not on the up-and-up. This was not a typical constituent request.”
Defense attorneys for Suhl questioned Carter’s credibility throughout the trial, repeatedly referring to him as a “hustler.” Indeed, on the stand, Steven Jones (the government’s own witness) called Carter a “local con man” and Carter himself said that he “hustled.” He also pleaded guilty to election fraud in a separate scheme from the Suhl affair. But Vaughn reminded the jury today that Carter isn’t the person trial.
“This is about what Ted Suhl did. This is about what Ted Suhl wanted. This is about what Ted Suhl was paying for,” she said.
Robert Cary delivered the closing argument for the other side. He repeated the defense’s refrain from the opening argument: “Not one conversation [between Suhl and Jones]. Not one dollar. Not one official act.”
“Ted Suhl — who is he? A generous man. An unapologetic evangelical Christian,” Cary told the jury. “Charity should not be a crime.” Suhl has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian causes over the years, including previous payments to the 15th St. Church of God in Christ that no one alleges were bribes. Cary said the 2007 -2011 payments to the 15th St. COGIC were of the same cloth. Those checks only look like bribes when viewed through the prosecutors’ “lens of cynicism,” he said. Cary said they were simply benevolent donations to a good cause: “Sometimes a check to a church is a check to a church.”
Cary questioned why Suhl would keep paying Jones if he received little material benefit in return. This would be like continuing to buy “groceries or pizza” without ever getting the items you paid for, Cary argued. And he said Suhl shouldn’t be blamed for simply meeting with Jones. “The First Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to petition the government,” the defense attorney said. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting with a public official.”
Prosecutors outlined a corruption scheme that involved at least three respected members of their respective communities: Suhl, a wealthy businessman; Jones, a high-ranking administrator in state government; and 15th St. COGIC Pastor John Bennett (who died in 2014 and was never interviewed by the FBI). The defense’s narrative painted a less disturbing picture: One bad apple, Phillip Carter, tainted several good men. In Cary’s telling, the other alleged co-conspirators were caught up in the government’s web only after Carter spun a tale for hungry prosecutors.
“Phillip Carter is a flawed witness that cannot be trusted,” Cary told the jury today.
The jury evidently disagreed. After reviewing the evidence, they found that Carter was not the only hustler at the table. And they evidently agreed with what prosecutor Vaughn said, during her closing argument, about the money that flowed from Ted Suhl to the 15th St. COGIC in West Memphis and onward to Steven Jones: “This was not Phillip Carter’s hustle. This was the defendant’s hustle.”