If you are among the many Arkansans who weep over the occasionally stern treatment of white-collar crooks, July 29 had to be a heartwarming day.
President Trump on that day slashed the prison sentence of Ted Suhl, who had bribed an Arkansas government official through the man’s church in exchange for the official’s sending millions of your tax dollars to Suhl’s facilities for misbehaving kids. Former Gov. and Rev. Mike Huckabee, a Trump supporter along with his daughter Sarah, and Bud Cummins, a former Republican U.S. attorney who ran Trump’s campaign in Arkansas in 2016, asked the president to show the godly man some mercy and free him from the bitter regimen of prison. Suhl’s bribes had persuaded the state official to put troubled kids in a remote facility near Warm Springs at the Missouri border in Randolph County that Suhl named The Lord’s Ranch, where with the help of Medicaid dollars the boys were exorcised of their demons by a mixture of prayer and the rod, especially the rod. Jesus would surely have approved of Trump’s mercy and Huckabee’s intercession.
On the same day, the prosecutor at Hot Springs worked out a deal with state Rep. Mickey Gates for Gates to plead no contest to refusing to pay any state income taxes for much of his adult life. When he was charged last year, Gates had not filed a state tax return since at least 2003, according to state revenue records, but that made no difference to voters in his district, because they re-elected the Republican in a landslide after he was charged with multiple felony counts and offered no rational explanation for his crimes.
Billboards in Gates’ district last fall carried Rev. Huckabee’s plea to re-elect his God-fearing Republican friend in spite of his obvious tax frauds. The prosecutor worked out a deal last month for Gates to avoid a trial by pleading nolo contendere to a couple of counts so that, as a first offender, the official record would not show that he was a convicted felon. He will need to pay a small part of the roughly $260,000 that tax auditors could determine that he owed. That way, he can remain a state representative in spite of a constitutional prohibition of felons serving in the legislature and continue to spend your tax dollars, as God and people in his district obviously want him to do.
On the same day, up the road in Sebastian County, it was reported that former state Sen. Jake Files, who had entered federal prison a year ago after getting caught in one too many schemes to attach your tax dollars for his own use, asked a federal judge to free him from prison in Oklahoma and let him serve the rest of his sentence at home in Fort Smith. Files, a Republican leader in the legislature, told the judge that he had been leading worship services in the prison, had read books and gotten a certificate as a master gardener. God’s plan clearly is for him to go home and continue his good deeds there. The judge was unconvinced, and said no.
It is not known whether Huckabee or his daughter also interceded with Donald Trump for Jake Files. Maybe later. But the line of Republican pleaders may be getting too long for Rev. Huckabee to undertake much more intercession with Republican powers, either in Washington or Little Rock. When it was just the good Republican Judge Mike Maggio facing a 10-year federal sentence for accepting a bribe to reduce a judgment against a nursing-home magnate or Gilbert Baker, the former state senator, Republican chairman and Huckabee friend who is charged with arranging Maggio’s bribe, the public could write such deeds off as a preacher’s penchant for mercy. But Republican politicians who need the blessings of their political pastor and Republican chief executives to escape years in prison are lining up in platoons.
The federal investigation of the General Improvement Fund (GIF) scam, where legislators channeled state and federal tax dollars to favored local projects, has now made felons of a half dozen lawmakers and assorted lobbyists and fixers, mostly linked by party. Two of a dozen Republican legislators who channeled some $750,000 of your taxes to a tiny Bible college at Elm Springs were convicted of collecting kickbacks from the college president, who has now gone to prison, too, and needs the intercession of men like Brother Huckabee and Trump. After the election next year, might Huckabee and Trump also come to the rescue of all of the faithful Republicans who are going to prison, including former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who is headed to the pen for scamming the governments that we despise so much?
Ted Suhl, of course, enjoyed a special place in Huckabee’s heart that none of the others do. You may not recall Suhl’s past. He came to Arkansas with his father, Bud, who had served some time behind bars in California, along with Ted’s grandmother. Bud and his mama lived in grand style in the ritzy Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles until the early ’60s, when they were convicted of running fraudulent money-order businesses. Then they were indicted for a check-kiting scheme that brought down a little bank they owned in the coastal resort of Mendocino north of San Francisco.
Bud and his precocious son Ted found their way to Arkansas, discovered religion and set up homes for troubled or delinquent children, who qualified for federal-state Medicaid assistance, first from Illinois and another state or two and, finally, Arkansas. Ted also discovered Mike Huckabee, the rising star of Arkansas politics in the 1990s. He invested in Huckabee’s campaigns and put his two airplanes at Huckabee’s disposal when the governor needed to go to political events around the country to raise his national profile. Huckabee appointed Suhl to the state Child Care Review Board, which regulated places like The Lord’s Ranch. Another governor might have recognized a conflict of interest, but not Huckabee. At Suhl’s trial in 2016, the go-between who set up the bribes to a state Medicaid official testified that Suhl asked him to approach Gov. Mike Beebe about putting Suhl back on the state child-care board. Beebe refused.
It might seem strange to some that an electorate like Garland County’s would send a man accused of massive fraud and who didn’t bother to deny the particulars back to the legislature with a resounding mandate. But cheating the government is about as popular in many quarters as denouncing government as the enemy of the people. One aspect of Trump’s still marginal popularity is that he boasted about finding ways to avoid paying taxes, claiming that he was just smarter than others. His refusal to allow the general public, lawmakers, or prosecutors to see a single one of his tax returns is popular with his base, which, according to polls, still includes most Arkansans. Cheating the government is no big deal, even if the government is all of us.
The cascade of official corruption in Arkansas, unmasked the past five years by the Maggio prosecution and then by the federal investigation of the GIF scams in North Arkansas, far exceeds anything in the modern history of the state. But there is little evidence of public disquiet about it all. Mickey Gates was not an outlier by insisting on keeping his office and winning an endorsement by people who thought he was a good old boy who stood up to the government. Senators like Jon Woods and Jake Files who were elected as family-values Republicans might have won an endorsement, too, but federal prosecutors were not as compliant as a friendly local prosecutor, or perhaps not as attuned to heavenly messaging.
There is still time for them to renew the bonds with Rev. Huckabee.