This post has been updated substantially since its original publication on Tuesday, June 11.
Julie McGee, the former girlfriend of ex-state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), took the stand Tuesday morning in the second day of a pre-trial hearing in U.S. District Court in Little Rock over Hutchinson’s effort to suppress evidence that originated from a Sony laptop McGee gave to the FBI in 2012. Hutchinson said McGee stole the laptop from him; McGee insists he gave it to her as a gift.
In more than three hours of testimony, McGee described a troubled “on-again, off-again” relationship in which Hutchinson used campaign funds to provide her with gifts, vacations and a fake job. When asked by federal prosecutors whether she actually performed work for the campaign, McGee responded, “if keeping him sexually satisfied is considered campaign work.”
In 2012, after one of their many disputes, McGee approached the FBI about Hutchinson’s alleged financial improprieties, setting in motion a sprawling investigation that is only now approaching trial. According to an FBI special agent who testified Tuesday afternoon, Hutchinson himself became a confidential informant in 2014 when confronted with evidence he’d used campaign funds illegally. That July, Hutchinson evidently told the FBI to look into then-Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale).
Woods is now serving an 18-year sentence in federal prison for multiple kickback schemes in which he enriched himself using public money. It’s not clear whether Hutchinson’s information ultimately led to the charges against Woods (and several co-defendants) or whether prosecutors in the Western District of Arkansas were already investigating Woods by that time.
By 2016, however, the FBI had decided to drop Hutchinson as a source. Evidently, agents determined he had not been fully truthful with them and was still engaging in potentially illegal behavior. An internal FBI document from 2016 presented to the court on Tuesday stated Hutchinson “has questionable relationship with current FBI subjects.” In 2017, the FBI reopened its investigation into Hutchinson, in part because it had acquired new information regarding Hutchinson and his former employer, Texarkana attorney John Goodson. (Goodson, who is the chair of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, told the Arkansas Times on Tuesday he was not under FBI investigation.)
Hutchinson is charged with spending $150,000 in campaign money on personal expenses and avoiding taxes on more than $270,000 in income. He faces separate federal charges in a bribery case in Missouri. After Tuesday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker said she would issue a written order on the issues raised at the hearing.
A turbulent relationship
Julie McGee said Tuesday that she and Hutchinson first met in 2010, when she was working at a Bryant restaurant, Luigi’s Pizza and Pasta. He was married at the time. They began a relationship, and when McGee needed a place to stay — she’d been physically assaulted by an ex-boyfriend, she said — Hutchinson offered her a condo in downtown Little Rock owned by his father, Tim, and his father’s wife.
McGee said Hutchinson “came up with a plan” to say she was working for his campaign to avoid suspicion when they were seen together in public. Hutchinson and a friend of his, Bill Vickery, arranged for her to be paid through a company called the Gordian Group, she said. (The company is now defunct, according to state records, but Vickery, a Little Rock lobbyist, was its registered agent and sole officer.) Hutchinson left a box of campaign checks at the condo so that she could use them when he wasn’t around, she said.
“We did go and put out signs together,” McGee said, when asked whether she ever did anything for Hutchinson’s campaign. “[I] took a mannequin once to a campaign headquarters in Benton.”
Prosecutors drew on years of communication between McGee and Hutchinson to make the case that McGee was the legitimate owner of the laptop. In one email exchange from 2012, Hutchinson listed a number of the things he’d bought for her, including “two computers, two kayaks, two iPads, two phones … $20,000 in furniture for your condo.” Hutchinson’s attorneys argued that the email was not in reference to the specific Sony laptop at issue.
Other details emerged as well. To make up for not spending Christmas with McGee, Hutchinson bought cruise tickets for McGee, her two children and her mother, apparently using campaign funds. He presented her with a Great Dane named “Ocean” on Mothers Day.
McGee also twice referenced an abortion allegedly paid for by Hutchinson, though attorneys did not ask her to elaborate. She said she later told the FBI that the senator had “a campaign fundraiser so that he could pay for the abortion.” During a subsequent recess, Hutchinson’s attorney, Tim Dudley, declined to answer a question on the topic. Like most Republicans, Hutchinson adopted an anti-abortion position in his campaigns and in his votes in the legislature.
They also had frequent arguments, which sometimes became physical. McGee said Hutchinson broke her finger in 2012 when he was trying to take a phone away from her. That September, they had a fight at his condo which culminated in her hitting him with a stuffed alligator head and being charged with third-degree battery. (McGee said Tuesday that Hutchinson had “busted her lip” while trying to kiss her before she hit him with the gator, though the police report from the incident says her statements were inconsistent.)
In August 2012, McGee approached the FBI to report Hutchinson’s alleged white-collar crimes. She said she went with former Republican legislator Dan Greenberg, but did not elaborate; Greenberg was defeated by Hutchinson in a Republican Senate primary in 2010. (UPDATE: Greenberg, who is a lawyer, confirmed in an email Wednesday morning that he “had an attorney-client relationship with Julie. I don’t remember the dates, but 2012 sounds about right.”) She turned over several electronic devices to investigators, including a Mac laptop and the Sony machine. The FBI made electronic images of the devices and eventually returned them to McGee. However, the Sony laptop was later stolen from McGee’s home, she said, and never recovered.
McGee said she told the FBI about Hutchinson’s alleged personal use of campaign money, along with alleged legislative actions that he performed for the benefit of Goodson, the Texarkana attorney. “I talked about Jeremy … getting money for trying to change a word in a law so that John Goodson could file class action lawsuits that he couldn’t previously file before,” she said. McGee said she hadn’t realized any of these actions were illegal until an attorney — presumably Greenberg — had told her they were.
Even after the August trip to the FBI and the September alligator-head incident, Hutchinson and McGee continued their relationship, McGee said. They were seeing each other as late as 2015, she claimed.
McGee was sometimes a difficult witness, particularly under cross-examination. She struggled to give answers to simple questions about dates, such as identifying the period of time when she lived with Hutchinson. She often contradicted herself on smaller points, such as telling a defense attorney she had engraved her name on the Sony laptop.
“I’m sure I did,” she said. When asked a second time, she backed off. “I’m not absolutely positive if I did or not. … I don’t know if I did. … Possibly.” But she remained resolute that the laptop had belonged to her and that she had not stolen it from Hutchinson.
The defense also brought out a text message McGee sent to an FBI agent in the case on Monday, in which she questioned the integrity of Judge Baker and suggested the court might be corrupt. She mentioned the recent death of state Sen. Linda Collins, and said she was afraid of Hutchinson and especially his ex-wife, Stephanie, due to an email McGee said she once received from Stephanie Hutchinson that she found threatening. (Jeremy and Stephanie Hutchinson divorced in 2011.)
‘You own me’
FBI Special Agent Michael Lowe testified Tuesday afternoon that investigators began to subpoena Hutchinson’s personal financial records in 2013, after receiving the devices from McGee.
In May 2013, Lowe said, the FBI received information from an individual that corroborated some of the evidence McGee had provided in 2012. That person was Bill Vickery, the lobbyist and friend of Hutchinson who had allegedly helped arrange McGee’s “job” on the campaign.
Lowe contacted Jeremy Hutchinson in June 2014 and set up an interview. When Lowe presented evidence of his misuse of campaign funds, bolstered by subpoenaed bank records and state tax returns, Hutchinson “did not have an explanation,” the FBI agent said. “His words were ‘I have no defense for that,’ ” Lowe said.
But at the time, the FBI was more interested in the other topic brought up by McGee: the relationship between Hutchinson and his then-employer, John Goodson. By McGee’s account to investigators in 2012, Hutchinson was expected to pass legislation helpful to Goodson’s firm in return for a $20,000 per month retainer. Goodson disputed this categorically in a phone interview with the Arkansas Times on Tuesday. The fee was paid in exchange for Hutchinson obtaining clients for class action cases, Goodson said.
Lowe told prosecutors at the hearing that Hutchinson, in his initial 2014 interview with the FBI agent, said he had not performed well in this role. “He said that he was a failure and did not bring any big cases to the Goodson firm. … At the end of about two years, Mr. Goodson started cutting the money off … He described that his payments from Goodson had decreased to $7,000 a month, and I believe at the time of our interview it was down to $5,000 per month,” Lowe said on Tuesday.
According to Lowe, Hutchinson told him in the 2014 interview that he frequently talked to Goodson about tort reform efforts in the state legislature. Unlike many other Republicans (but like many other attorneys), Hutchinson was generally opposed to tort reform. Lowe said that Hutchinson told him that “he was able to defeat tort reform” in the legislature, presumably a reference to a measure in the 2013 session.
Lowe said he then confronted Hutchinson directly with the question of whether the senator was being bribed by Goodson. “He said he was not,” Lowe said.
Nonetheless, Lowe said, Hutchinson “talked about how Mr. Goodson did care about tort reform and he had frequent discussions with Mr. Goodson about that matter. … He said he had talked to him about specific legislation, but he was not asked or instructed by Mr. Goodson to do anything.” And, Lowe continued, Hutchinson acknowledged that it “looked really bad, him taking Mr. Goodson’s money.” (Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutors repeatedly highlighted a line in an email that Hutchinson had sent to his wife on June 20, 2011: ” … but if I lose the election, I will probably lose Goodson’s money …”)
In any case, Hutchinson faced serious charges over his alleged misuse of campaign funds and discrepancies on his federal income taxes. The senator became upset as the June 2014 interview continued, Lowe said. “He basically begged to not go to jail … and asked me what I could do. … His exact words to me were, ‘You own me for the rest of my life,’ ” Lowe said.
Though he didn’t provide details in that initial interview, Lowe said, Hutchinson indicated he had valuable information to give the FBI. “He spoke about something that was foreign to me at that time — General Improvement Funds,” Lowe said. (The General Improvement Fund, or GIF, was composed of surplus state money that legislators often steered to local pet projects.) Hutchinson told Lowe he had a client who was a mental health provider. He knew of a fellow state legislator who had directed GIF grants to the client but now demanded $30,000 in cash for the legislative actions he’d taken, he said.
By July, the FBI had cleared Hutchinson as a “confidential human source” — an informant — and he gave them the name of the legislator in question, state Sen. Jon Woods. The mental health provider was Dayspring, which was then owned by parent nonprofit Preferred Family Healthcare. The head of Dayspring was lobbyist Rusty Cranford.
Cranford and other PFH executives now stand accused of multiple counts of bribery, fraud, embezzlement and other charges. (Hutchinson’s second set of federal charges in Missouri are related to the provider, which is based in Springfield, Missouri.) But in 2014, Lowe assumed that Cranford was a victim — that Woods was simply trying to extort money from him. Cranford’s subsequent plea agreement would reveal a much more tangled relationship with Woods, Hutchinson and a number of other legislators.
By 2015, the FBI had destroyed the electronic images it had made of the devices McGee turned over to the agency in 2012 as part of a routine procedure involving records in closed investigations, Lowe said.