UPDATED, 3:10 p.m.: Federal Judge Billy Roy Wilson this morning sentenced Ted Suhl, the former operator of a Medicaid-financed mental health services empire, to seven years in prison and three years of supervised release, plus a $200,000 fine for bribing a state official to gain advantage for his business.
As of now, he’s to report to prison on Jan. 3. But Suhl’s attorneys will appeal to the federal Eighth Circuit, and this morning, they filed a motion for his release pending appeal.
Government attorneys had originally asked for up to 233 months, Suhl for 33. The judge departed from the sentencing guidelines that called for a fine of up to $125,000 and instead set the fine at $200,000. Wilson said he found it objectionable to “use religion to grease the skids of a bribe.”
Wilson was referring to the scheme in which Suhl wrote checks, ostensibly as charitable donations, to a West Memphis church, the 15th Street Church of God in Christ. A portion of that money would then be delivered in cash to a top-level official at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, former deputy director Stephen Jones. DHS oversaw the Medicaid reimbursements that funded Suhl’s businesses. At his July trial, Suhl insisted that the donations to the 15th St. COGIC were merely charity, despite evidence to the contrary.
Suhl didn’t speak today. But his attorneys cited his history of charitable giving — more than $1.5 million dollars to nonprofits and Christian organizations, the defense said — and other good deeds. Defense attorney Robert Cary said Suhl had a track record of charity “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” The government remarked that at least a portion of that charitable giving had been a mask for bribes.
“Those were the same ideals — charity, religious values — that he falsely, fraudulently invoked when he made bribe payments,” prosecutor John Keller said today.
(Unsolicited, Judge Wilson raised one small point about Suhl’s alleged generosity. Among the reams of evidence presented at trial were credit card receipts from the Texas de Brazil, the Memphis steakhouse where Suhl would meet Jones and a middleman. When Cary was extolling his client’s munificence today, Wilson interrupted to note that he’d spotted a $10 tip for the waitstaff on a dinner bill totaling more than $100. “That doesn’t seem very generous to me,” the judge remarked. Cary said later that the $10 gratuity on the receipt was in addition to a larger tip left by the diners, presumably in cash.)
Suhl arrived at court in an unhappy mood. Arkansas Times photographer Brian Chilson, who was waiting for Suhl’s arrival, reported:
He yelled at me “One day God will repay you for what you’re doing, One day!”
Suhl made millions in public money from operation of a residential facility once known as the Lord’s Ranch, later renamed Trinity Behavioral Health. He also operated outpatient facilities under the names Arkansas Counseling Associates and Maxus. He was a powerful political player, particularly during the administration of Gov. Mike Huckabee, who shared Suhl’s conservative religious views and took rides on Suhl’s plane.
In July, he was convicted on four bribery charges for funneling money to Jones, a DHS official and a former legislator, for information and favorable treatment at DHS. The money Suhl funneled through the West Memphis church was delivered to Jones by way of a former West Memphis city official, Phillip Carter, who Suhl had known for years before. Carter and Jones pleaded guilty in the case and cooperated with the government (although Jones ended up being less helpful than the prosecution had expected when it placed him on the witness stand, and attorney Keller noted today that “Jones’ testimony at trial was not credible”). The two men are serving 24- and 30-month sentences respectively.
The defense said Suhl should receive a sentence in the same general range as Jones and Carter. But the government argued for a much stiffer sentence, based primarily on the value of the “benefit-to-be-received” by the defendant in return for his payments to Jones. The prosecutors offered Judge Wilson two possible figures to chose from in determining the size of that benefit: Either $1.8 million (the total profits generated by Suhl’s companies in Medicaid payments from 2008 to 2011, the time period during which the bribery scheme occurred) or the much smaller sum of $176,820.05. Wilson went with the second figure.
That smaller amount approximated what Suhl intended to receive specifically in return for his illicit payment to Jones in 2011, prosecutors said. In a 2011 call wiretapped by the FBI, Suhl tells Phillip Carter that he should get Jones to “put the stop to” a portion of Medicaid business evidently being sent to a competitor, Mid-South. Suhl said in the taped call that “the DHS in Northeast Arkansas, they give all their referrals to Mid-South in outpatient and that needs to have a stop put to it. … [I]t’s not about Blytheville. It’s all in Northeast Arkansas. It’s Blytheville, Jonesboro, Paragould, Trumann.”
The prosecutors therefore looked at Mid-South’s gross proceeds from Medicaid services provided to minors in Northeast Arkansas in 2011 and 2012 — that is, the slice of Mid-South’s business that Suhl seemingly wanted to procure for himself — and came up with a figure of around $9 million. They then applied Suhl’s company’s profit margins during each of those two years (2.9 percent and 0.9 percent respectively) to derive a “profit-to-be-received” amount of $176,820.05.
Note that Suhl didn’t actually receive this sum as a result of his bribes to Jones. Keller said today that the illicit payments were intended to “facilitate his ability to obtain that business” from his competitor. Defense attorney Cary argued that there was no evidence all of Mid-South’s business would have gone to Suhl and objected that Jones (and DHS more generally) had relatively limited ability to directly steer business to any one provider. But the judge agreed with the prosecutors: What matters is less what Suhl got out of his corrupt arrangement with Jones and more what he intended to get out of it. On the wiretapped call in question, he indeed appears to be gunning for Mid-South’s business in the Northeast part of the state and wants Jones to do something to help him.
Suhl evidently declined to fill out statements detailing his net worth or his monthly cash flow, but defense attorneys today said that his net worth is over $5 million — so he will be able to pay the $200,000 fine.
However, Wilson did give Suhl a break on one issue. The government argued for an enhancement to his sentence due to obstruction of justice, based on Suhl’s statements on the witness stand during his trial, which prosecutors said were found to be untrue by the jury. Wilson said he was uncomfortable with the idea that the defendant’s testimony in his defense amounted to perjury.
“It feels un-American to me, and I don’t like it,” he said, and later added “I just don’t like the idea of someone being penalized by going to trial.” Other than that,the judge largely agreed with the prosecution’s recommendations.
Suhl was the subject of several investigative pieces in the Arkansas Times over the years, both for political connections and influence and for some of the practices at the Lord’s Ranch, his residential facility for youth. Mary Jacoby, who wrote a major article in 2009 on the Lord’s Ranch, reported recently on the Suhl family’s arrival in Arkansas after his father and his father’s mother (not Ted Suhl’s mother) were convicted of felonies in a financial swindle in California.