Former Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson entered negotiated guilty pleas today to two federal felony cases in district court in Little Rock.
Still to come July 8 is an expected guilty plea in Springfield, Mo., to a third federal case in which he’s accused of taking bribes disguised as legal fees to provide legislative help to Preferred Family Healthcare, then a recipient of tens of millions of Medicaid money to provide community-based health services.
Today, Hutchinson pleaded to a single charge of filing a false tax return (he had faced 12 wire fraud and tax fraud charges) related to his use of $150,000 in campaign money for personal expenses and underreporting income to the IRS by $270,000, and to a single charge related to his taking $157,000 in bribes (again disguised as legal fees) from an orthodontist to attempt to change state law so the orthodontist could perform a broader variety of dental procedures.
He didn’t speak during the hearing except to plead guilty and say he understood the charges against him. He’s to be sentenced in 90 days. Reporters were waiting outside the courthouse to seek comment after the hearing, but he made no comment.
The charges today carry penalties up to 5 years on tax fraud and three on bribery, but as a first offender he won’t be given the maximum. And sentences in plea deals are rarely stacked consecutively.
Little was said about the pending case in Missouri, but a U.S. attorney said further indictments were pending.
Hutchinson’s uncle, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, issued this statement later:
“Jeremy has been engaged as a part time legislator for many years, and I am deeply saddened with this breach of the public trust. As a public official, I know the damage this does to public confidence and trust in our elected officials. We should all double our efforts to do the right thing in public office and to restore the public trust. “As my nephew, I hurt for him and his children. My prayers will continue for Jeremy, and I am hopeful this chapter of Arkansas political history will soon come to a close.”
Hutchinson had pleaded not guilty originally to the campaign and tax charges, but was exposed in unflattering ways in testimony as he tried to prevent use of computer information against him. The second case emerged only yesterday in Fayetteville. He waived indictment on two conspiracy charges and that case was consolidated with the campaign/tax fraud case for today’s hearing.
The pleas today and the scheduled plea will end prosecutions of Hutchinson, who for a time was a cooperating witness for the FBI, but came back under their scrutiny as he continued to spend campaign money illegally, through 2016. He’s said to have given information early on that contributed to the prosecutions of former Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, the former serving a federal prison sentence and the latter given home detention for his early cooperation with a public corruption probe. That investigation has also produced guilty pleas from two other former legislators, Hank Wilkins of Pine Bluff and Eddie Cooper of Melbourne, and an executive and lobbyist for Preferred Family Healthcare, Rusty Cranford. Cranford is jailed awaiting testimony in the Missouri case pending against Tom and Bontiea Goss of Springfield, former top officials of PFH. A number of other people have been charged with Medicaid fraud as well and at least two of them have pleaded guilty in cooperation agreements.
Hutchinson has been amassing enormous legal fees, with high-powered defense lawyers from Little Rock, Washington and New York. His father, former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, the brother of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins have been leading a legal defense fund for Jeremy Hutchinson.
Plea agreements are expected to be filed in court that outline Hutchinson’s admissions. But they aren’t expected to provide specific clues as to what further assistance Hutchinson might be expected to provide. In the course of charges, hearings and pleas so far, some other Arkansas political figures have been implicated, but not charged, in activities of Medicaid providers. PFH was thrown off the Medicaid program in Arkansas after the felony charges started pouring in.
PFH, in addition to making illegal campaign contributions and bribes for favorable legislation, schemed to get money from the unconstitutional General Improvement Fund. Kickbacks on the distribution of that money also implicated Neal and Woods in a scheme with Ecclesia College near Springdale. That produced convictions of the former college president, Oren Paris, and a friend of both Paris and Woods, Randell Shelton. Paris, Woods and Shelton are all appealing their convictions. Former legislators Wilkins and Cooper have yet to be sentenced, likely because the government is awaiting their cooperation in pending cases. Former Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith also went to prison for stealing money from the General Improvement Fund on a local project.
Hutchinson will remain free until sentencing, which will be set in 90 days. He’s a first offender, which will figure favorably in the points added up to determine a sentencing recommendation. Cooperation is also a plus. Illegal actions by a public official are negatives.