A lobbyist working on behalf of a Magnolia, Arkansas nonprofit that serves delinquent and at-risk youth steered tens of thousands of dollars to then-Sen. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV (D-Pine Bluff) from 2010 to 2014 in exchange for favorable treatment, including state grants and multiple pieces of legislation, a federal plea agreement filed late Monday states.
That’s just one allegation among several in the federal information regarding Wilkins, who resigned his position as county judge in Jefferson County last month after details of the alleged kickback scheme became public during testimony in a separate federal case. Wilkins, who served in the Arkansas House and Senate from 1999 to 2015, pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and bribery.
Though the federal information is detailed, it’s short on names. Wilkins many alleged co-conspirators are identified only descriptively. Among them are “Entity F, an Arkansas non-profit corporation located in Magnolia, Arkansas, which was a provider of youth services to delinquent and at-risk youth.” The agreement identifies a “Person #3” who “served as the Director of Entity F and caused Entity F to make payments” to two lobbying firms that then made payments to St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, where Wilkins was a pastor.
South Arkansas Youth Services Inc. was a Magnolia-based nonprofit that has contracted with the Arkansas Division of Youth Services (an arm of the Department of Human Services) for years. It filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Court filings in those proceedings, as well as statements by former SAYS employees, noted an FBI investigation concerning the agency.
The longtime director of SAYS was Jerry Walsh, who left the nonprofit last year before it filed for bankruptcy.
Two other key players in Wilkins plea are “Entity A” and “Person #1.” The former is “a Missouri-based nonprofit corporation that provided a variety of services to individuals in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma
One Missouri-based nonprofit providing the services named above (and operating in the states named above) has been in the news lately: Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, Missouri. Leaders of PFH have been implicated in a separate kickback scheme involving a criminal plea by another former Arkansas legislator, Eddie Cooper; its contracts with DHS have grown tremendously in recent years. (Cooper is also mentioned frequently in the Wilkins plea agreement.)
The PFH executive who oversaw operations in Arkansas during this period was Rusty Cranford, an Arkansas lobbyist who also listed South Arkansas Youth Services as a client.
The plea agreement states that “Person #1 directed monies in the form of checks from Entity A, Lobbying Firm B, Lobbying Firm C and Lobbying Firm D that were deposited into Wilkins’ church discretionary account.” Wilkins was a signatory on that account, and the agreement includes a long list of individual payments made by check to St. James United Methodist Church by Entity A or the three lobbying firms. Person #1 also “on at least one occasion” gave “Wilkins approximately $5,000 in cash concealed in an envelope.”
Person #1 and Wilkins would often meet in person at or near the state Capitol, the plea agreement says. It notes that “from February 2013 to December 2013 alone, Person #1 contacted or attempted to contact, Wilkins by telephone approximately 344 times.”
Entity F, the Magnolia-based youth nonprofit, is among the lobbying clients of Person #1 listed in the plea agreement, as is the Arkansas Youth Services Providers Association. So was another youth services nonprofit based in Pine Bluff, identified here as “Entity E.”
Person #1 worked hard to get results for his clients in the Arkansas legislature. The information states that his lobbying firms:
… represented youth service providers around the state of Arkansas during the 89th General Assembly [that is, the 2013 regular session] and … lobbied to prevent the Arkansas Department of Youth Services (DYS) from adopting new rules and regulations deemed burdensome by the youth service providers and which were not contained in the original contracts between DYS and the youth service providers. Specifically, in late 2012 and throughout 2013, Person #1, in furtherance of his lobbying on behalf of youth service providers including Entity F, formulated legislation that would require the State to appear before legislative committees prior to changing youth service provider contracts. That bill [House Bill 1328] would later become Act 321 of 2013.
The document then goes through a blow-by-blow accounting of how
“Attached to this email was draft legislation that would later be filed as HB 1328. … Wilkins forwarded the draft bill to Person #1, who then forwarded it on to Person #3 at Entity F,” the information states.
The 2013 regular legislative session began in January, and on Feb. 13, Wilkins filed HB 1328, entitled “An Act to require DYS to appear before the legislature for any changes to Youth Provider contracts.” It attracted a large number of co-sponsors (the lead Senate sponsor was Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock) and passed with near-unanimous support in both chambers, becoming Act 321 on March 11. (Here’s the bill page for the legislation from 2013.)
The federal information sums up the alleged scheme as follows:
HB 1328 was favorable to the interests of the youth service providers including Entity F and thereby advanced the interests of Person #1, who was paid to lobby on their behalf. In exchange for the bribe payments from Person #1 [and his lobbying firms] … Wilkins agreed to advance the interests of the clients of those lobbying entities through this bill.
But that’s not all. The document also details at least two other pieces of Wilkins-sponsored legislation in 2013 that were allegedly useful to the interests of Entity F. It identifies another legislator of interest, named only as “Senator A,” who corresponded with Person #1 in detail about the contents of legislation helpful to the youth services provider nonprofits. It describes General Improvement Fund money being used to pay grants to Entity F, Entity E and Entity A. It says Wilkins used the church discretionary fund to write himself over $7,000 in checks and pay approximately $10,600 toward the balances on several Discover cards in his name.
The information also implies that Person #1 was under FBI scrutiny as early as 2014. It describes a 2014 meeting in which “Person #1 informed Wilkins that Person #1 was being investigated by the FBI. Person #1 stated to Wilkins that Person #1 needed to continue making payments to Wilkins’ discretionary fund even after Wilkins left the Arkansas legislature. Person #1 stated to Wilkins words to the effect that Person #1 needed to do this to make it ‘look like I wasn’t paying you.'” Person #1 then continued making payments to the account at Wilkins’ church until January 2016, well after he’d left the legislature.