The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today affirmed the bribery conviction and seven-year sentence of Ted Suhl, the former operator of a behavioral health company in Arkansas.
Suhl was convicted in July 2016 and later sentenced to seven years in federal
During the four years covered by the indictment, 2007 to 2011, Suhl’s companies, which provided both residential and out-patient services, 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 and former legislator, Steven Jones, by way of communicating through a middleman, West Memphis juvenile probation officer Philip Carter. Carter and Jones pleaded guilty to bribery and served 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.
Suhl’s case drew heavy attention because of periodic past news coverage of his operations, which included the Lord’s Ranch, later called Trinity Behavioral Services, in Randolph County, and his political influence. He was a contributor to legislative races, became friends with Gov. Mike Huckabee and served on the state child welfare board.
Suhl’s appeal rested in part on an argument raised successfully in some other bribery cases around the country that the government had to prove a quid pro quo agreement for money paid for official acts.
In a 16-page ruling, the appeals court rejected that argument. It disagreed with the argument by Suhl’s attorney that federal statutes and the McDonnell case, involving gifts to a Virginia governor, weighed against the conviction.
Neither of these statutes, nor McDonnell, imposes a universal requirement that bribe payors and payees have a meeting of the minds about an official act. A payor defendant completes the crimes of honest-services and federal-funds bribery as soon as he gives or offers payment in exchange for an official act, even if the payee does nothing or immediately turns him in to law enforcement.
The court also said District Judge Billy Roy Wilson’s jury instructions were proper for the crimes charged, again because Suhl hoped to influence acts by a public servant. The statute does not include the words “exchange for,” as Suhl’s attorney had argued should be the standard.
Suhl also objected to his counsel’s inability to question Philip Carter about the details of his federal conviction. But the court said Carter’s conviction was told to the jury as was his plea bargain for better treatment in return for testimony against Suhl. The court also dismissed an argument that Suhl had been prevented from introducing his full record of philanthropic giving. It noted his contributions to Carter’s church before the bribery scheme
Suhl also objected to the amount of the loss estimated from the bribery scheme in determining his sentence. The court again ruled against him.
In this case, the district court found that Suhl intended for Jones to divert all of the juvenile Medicaid cases in northeastern Arkansas to one of his companies between 2011 and 2012. The court looked at Suhl’s company records and determined that Suhl reaped a profit of 2.9% on Medicaid reimbursements in 2011, and a 0.9% profit in 2012. The court then multiplied those profit margins by the 2011 and 2012 Medicaid reimbursements received by the competitor from whom Suhl wanted Jones to divert clients. The court then added the 2011 and 2012 estimated profit totals together to get an estimated intended loss of $176,820.
This calculation is indeed an estimate, but it is sufficiently reasonable to avoid clear error.
Suhl, 52, is being held at a federal medical center for federal prisoners at Springfield, Mo. Federal records show a release date of Feb. 25, 2023.
He can ask for a review of the three-judge panel’s decision by the entire 8th Circuit Court or seek a U.S. Supreme Court review. The opinion noted some difference among the circuits in the application of bribery statutes. The decision was written by Judge Jane Kelly and joined by Judges Steven Colloton and William Benton.
When the first bribery allegations surfaced against Jones, the state ceased using Suhl’s facilities in the Medicaid program and they eventually stopped operating.