I received an anonymous tip Friday that Rusty Cranford, the key lobbyist-fixer in the sprawling public corruption case that ensnared several legislators, would be released from federal prison later this week to serve his sentence in home detention in a home he owns in Douglassville, Texas, near the minimum security prison in Texarkana.
The tip said he’d be released under the CARES Act, the federal pandemic response legislation. Among other measures to reduce prison populations, it gave the attorney general authority to speed release of federal inmates to home confinement.
I’ve been unable to reach anyone to confirm or deny that tip. But court records indicate he IS seeking release to home detention on account of the coronavirus threat.
Prosecutors are opposing a plea for this in federal district court in Springfield, Mo. They note he has pending a request with the Bureau of Prisons for a transfer to home detention, though it would be through an appeal to Washington of an original denial.
Cranford says his health problems put him at risk in the coronavirus pandemic. In arguing for release, he also details the help he’s provided prosecutors in a case in which two high-ranking figures in the scandal are still awaiting trial. His plea, in addition to citing an exemplary prison behavior record, said:
From early on in his confinement, Mr. Cranford has been a valued cooperating witness offering substantial assistance to the government, participating in at least ten proffer sessions with both the US Attorney’s Office and the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office and testifying before the grand jury on multiple occasions. Notably, Mr. Cranford will be eligible for a reduction in sentence based on substantial assistance upon completion of his cooperation when his co-defendants’ cases are resolved by trial or plea.
Cranford is 59, not old enough (65) for consideration of special treatment under guidelines issued during the pandemic.
Cranford contends his health was made worse by 18 months in a Missouri county jail as he provided testimony to the federal Grand Jury in the case still pending against Tom and Bontiea Goss, the two top former officials of Preferred Family Health Care. They are scheduled for trial in April. The nonprofit illegally Medicaid money to political contributions and bribes.
Cranford has been held since his arrest in March 2018 because he was deemed a flight risk and also because he was accused of threatening to have an adverse witness killed. He later entered a negotiated guilty plea and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
April 7 he filed a motion for compassionate early release, then withdrew it and submitted a new motion April 28. As the government recounts it:
In his motion, the defendant cites the following in support of his request for compassionate early release: (1) he is 59 years old, a life-long smoker, is pre-diabetic, has a long history of high blood pressure, reduced kidney function and has suffered bilateral pneumonia on multiple occasions in the past; (2) his conduct while incarcerated has been “exemplary;” (3) he has been a valuable cooperating witness and will be eligible for a reduced sentence; (4) he has a suitable re-entry plan; and (5) he has already served 26 months of his 84- month sentence.
Cranford has also sought separately through an appeal to prison officials to be released to home confinement. He contends he was moved to quarantine April 10 and told he was being evaluated for a move to home confinement. In going to federal court for compassionate release, the government recounts his allegation in a filing in May:
Mr. Cranford was advised the quarantine would last 14 days and he would be released to either home confinement or a halfway house by April 27th. Instead, Mr. Cranford is apparently still in quarantine and no steps have been taken to verify any information he provided about his home plan, which is stable and should easily meet the criteria for home confinement. The inmates in quarantine are not permitted to communicate regularly by email and are permitted only very short phone calls once a week, meaning the conditions he is now experiencing are extremely and uncommonly difficult, with no clear end in sight. Nearly 30 days have passed since Mr. Cranford’s original request for release with no sign of further progress.
The government argues in response to a federal court request for release that Cranford’s lawyers have conflated a request for early release from a sentence, which a court could grant, with a request to prison officials for transfer to home confinement, which is not in the court’s jurisdiction. It said the Bureau of Prisons had considered Cranford’s eligibility for transfer to home confinement and found he didn’t meet the criteria. He is required to have served more than 50 percent of his sentence or have 18 months left having served 25 percent of the sentence.
Cranford may appeal the denial to Washington and that process should be completed before a court considers whether other circumstances weigh in his favor, the government said. He must show the probation office in East Texas would be willing to accept a transfer of his case from Missouri.
In the course of its objections, the government also made the case that Cranford should not qualify for a sentence reduction through early release
The government argues that the Bureau of Prisons has taken many steps to safeguard the health of inmates and it said Cranford hadn’t demonstrated sufficient evidence to justify an early release on medical grounds.
Of importance, there is no proffered evidence or claim that he is unable to provide self-care or perform daily living activities. The defendant has failed to sustain his burden to prove that he meets the requirements for compassionate release or a reduction of sentence. The defendant does not have a terminal illness and does not suffer from any physical or mental condition that substantially diminishes his ability to provide self-care within the correctional facility. Rather, this transfer appears to be sought to minimize a speculative future risk to the defendant.
Although he does not meet this standard, the defendant argues his medical condition places him at an increased risk should he contract the coronavirus. Unfortunately, the defendant’s circumstance is not extraordinary in the context that many individuals across the nation—including incarcerated individuals—are in the same or similar position as the defendant, and the defendant’s medical condition remains the same whether or not he is released. While the Government is attuned to the difficulties facing inmates, this particular instance simply fails to meet the requirements of the law and policy.
In response to Cranford’s claim of a high risk of getting sick or dying from COVID-19, the government said:
… based on his age and underlying health conditions, the defendant makes a general argument that prison populations are more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus. However, as of May 7, 2020, the BOP’s website indicates that Texarkana FCI, the facility where the defendant is incarcerated, has zero inmates and zero BOP staff who have tested positive for COVID-19. The defendant’s current placement in medical isolation further minimizes his current risk of exposure to any illness, not just COVID-19
The government concedes Cranford has been a “valuable cooperating witness,” but isn’t prepared to speculate if that will eventually merit a sentence reduction. And his claim of rehabilitation isn’t sufficient either.
Indeed, Government counsel would go so far as to agree that Mr. Cranford has made great strides in his rehabilitation, and is a very different man than the individual who was arrested by Federal agents more than two years ago. Moreover, by virtue of his family responsibilities and other circumstances, Mr. Cranford has substantial incentive to remain on that path. However, rehabilitation of a defendant is not, by itself, an extraordinary and compelling reason for a reduction of a term of imprisonment.
Then there’s the magnitude of the crime. Wrote the government:
Indeed, in this case, the last factor weighs against an order reducing the defendant’s sentence to time served. Less than six months ago this Court sentenced Mr. Cranford to 84 months’ incarceration for his serious criminal conduct involving the theft and diversion of millions from a tax-exempt public charity, and his bribery of numerous elected officials. He has served only about 26 months, which in turn represented a substantial downward departure from his advisory sentencing range of 324 to 405 months’ incarceration. To now order that sentence reduced to time served would undermine the public’s faith that the justice system holds accountable those who commit crimes of public corruption.
The government also said public safety was an issue, related to the allegation (not a part of his conviction) that he’d threatened a witness. His attorneys said he wouldn’t have followed through. The government said:
Regardless, the United States does not at this point assert that Mr. Cranford would be likely to attempt to harm others if he were released. However, the evidence presented in connection with the detention proceedings established that when all of this occurred Mr. Cranford was abusing controlled substances, both prescribed for him and obtained without prescriptions—most particularly, Xanax. It is this underlying substance abuse issue that the United States believes presents the most significant danger to the community, especially given the threat that irresponsible social habits pose to the community in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The attorney general in March directed the Bureau of Prisons to give priority to home confinement, considering a variety of factors, and had moved a significant number of prisoners. But that’s a decision the Bureau of Prisons should make, not the federal court, the U.S. attorney’s office argued.
Cranford’s attorney countered in May:
…. aside from the instant offense, Mr. Cranford does not have a significant or lengthy criminal history. Now, this pandemic threatens to turn Mr. Cranford’s punishment into a life sentence. To date, Mr. Cranford has served 26 difficult months. In the interest of preventing an unjust punishment, he should be permitted to serve the remainder of his sentence on home confinement.
Extraordinary and compelling circumstances warrant Mr. Cranford’s compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 makes its way into FCI Texarkana and takes its toll on the high-risk inmates there, Mr. Cranford among them. In light of Mr. Cranford’s age, his serious health issues, his significant progress toward rehabilitation, and the fact that he is unlikely to reoffend, the Court should find that his release is appropriate and place him on home confinement, subject to electronic monitoring, for the remainder of his sentence.
The public corruption scandal ensnared former legislators Micah Neal, Jon Woods, Eddie Cooper, Hank Wilkins and Jeremy Hutchinson, as well as numerous others who worked for or had associations with Preferred Family Health and other nonprofit agencies. Cooper, Wilkins and Hutchinson still await sentencing.
The federal court request, with government opposition, has been pending since May 12. The status of the Bureau of Prisons release appeal isn’t currently known. I have sent questions to Cranford’s lawyers and the Bureau of Prisons.