Brian Chilson

This is big. Former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson will be in court Tuesday to change his plea in the pending Little Rock case alleging personal use of campaign money and cheating on income taxes. He had previously pleaded not guilty.

UPDATE: Also today, a new bribery allegation against Hutchinson was filed in the federal court in the western district of Arkansas. The records says Hutchinson waived indictment on the charge and the case was transferred to the eastern district of Arkansas where he will enter a guilty plea and be sentenced. In this case, Hutchinson is accused of taking bribes from an unnamed orthodontist to amend the state dental practices act to remove the specialist restriction that limited procedures that the orthodontist could perform except in emergency situations. The charge says Hutchinson introduced legislation and recommended study on a law change to help the orthodontist. The information said the orthodontist and his related businesses paid bribes — a total of $157,500 between May 2014 and November 2016 — disguised as legal fees or retainers in return for Hutchinson’s legislative work.

Here’s the charge in full. It names no one else or identifies their businesses. But orthodontists have complained in the past about the inability to do routine teeth cleaning at their orthodontic specialty clinics. The absence of a named co-conspirator suggests whoever is implicated here was prepared to cooperate in prosecution of Hutchinson. Here’s the study Hutchinson proposed. His attorney tells me this charge will be rolled into the plea change scheduled Tuesday on the campaign fraud and tax charges.

Judge Kristine Baker still has under advisement an attempt by Hutchinson to prevent use of information from a computer provided to FBI by his former girlfriend related to campaign spending. He contends it was stolen. She says it was hers. The hearing on that evidence produced numerous admissions and evidence of other questionable dealing by Hutchinson.

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BRIAN CHILSON
FACING TRIAL: Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (right) arrives at federal court.

A plea in this case naturally will give rise to the question of whether it’s a prelude to cooperation in a much bigger case in Springfield, Mo. There he’s accused of taking bribes to provide legislative help to Preferred Family Healthcare, a nonprofit that once reaped tens of millions in government money providing mental health and other services.

I reached Tim Dudley, one of Hutchinson’s lawyers, and got the same “no comment” answer to a series of questions:

  1. About this plea
  2. Whether it holds any significance for future developments in the case in Missouri. UPDATE: Late Monday a filing indicated a change of plea in this case, too, on July 8
  3. Whether this indicates a feeling that the judge was likely to return an unfavorable ruling on use of evidence in this case.

In the Missouri case, Hutchinson is named along with two top former executives of PFH. Rusty Cranford, a lobbyist and executive for the company, has already pleaded guilty as has a former employee in Little Rock, Robin Raveendran, and two former state legislators.

Another question arises from the Hutchinson plea, Particularly the signal of future cooperation in the Missouri case. Will  it open the door to further prosecutions of others implicated but not charged in the long-running public corruption probe? Other legislators benefitted in various ways from campaign spending, consulting fees and other favors that flowed from PFH money.

The first plea change filed Monday comes in a case in which Hutchinson faces eight counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud in use of campaign money and four counts of aiding in filing false income tax returns. There’s been testimony he spent $150,000 in campaign money on his girlfriend, child support and other personal expenses. He’s also accused of not reporting $270,000 income over four years. A trial was scheduled July 8.

Testimony included information about Hutchinson’s payments for putative legal work by both PFH and a Texarkana law firm headed by John Goodson. Goodson has said his finder’s fee arrangement with Hutchinson was legal and, on balance, made a profit for the firm, though it diminished over time to the point that Hutchinson’s pay, originally $20,000 a month, dropped to $5,000 a month. He said he got no legislative benefits from Hutchinson. Rusty Cranford and others have said Hutchinson’s retainer from PFH was in return for legislative favors.

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I also sought comment from Tim Hutchinson, the former U.S. senator, who’s been working to raise funds for his son’s  legal defense fund. He replied:

It would not be productive to make any comment beyond that I continue to support and love Jeremy completely. My faith in him is unwavering.

UPDATE: Early Monday, an initial appearance was scheduled in the separate case in Missouri for Jeremy Hutchinson. It was to be at 1 p.m. July 29. This is an appearance on a superseding indictment I reported last week that added some details to allegations against the defendants, including a narrative of the conspiracy that reflects additional cooperating witnesses in the case. This case isn’t scheduled for trial currently until April 5, 2021.

This was superseded itself Monday afternoon by the notice of a change of plea at 9:30 a.m. July 8 and cancellation of the arraignment. He apparently is putting the end to three sets of charges. To minimize the sentence he’ll serve he’ll have to produce something. Surely that will include testimony against the former PFH bosses Tom and Bontiea Goss, head of what appears a huge criminal enterprise. A potential expansion of Arkansas figures is the more interesting question.