A major federal indictment last week passed with barely a peep from Arkansas politicians and scant notice from news media.
The feds finally turned loose an indictment of Ted Suhl, owner/operator of inpatient and outpatient companies for young people with mental health problems, for paying bribes to help his government-financed business.
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Steven Jones, a former state legislator and high Department of Human Services official, had already pleaded guilty to taking bribes from an unnamed person that DHS acknowledged was Suhl when it cut his companies off from Medicaid reimbursement.
I’ve been unable to get a full accounting for Suhl’s time in Arkansas, but past reporting shows he’s reaped at least $150 million in federal and state payments for the inpatient facility in Randolph County once known as the Lord’s Ranch and from a string of community counseling operations.
Suhl’s been on my radar for a long time. He was so close to Mike Huckabee during the Huckabee administration that he was appointed to the board that regulates facilities such as his own. He flew Huckabee to political events on his private plane. He lavished the Republican Party and state legislators with contributions. It wasn’t all about self-interest. Suhl also comes from the hard-right end of the religious spectrum. The state board on which he sat tried, unconstitutionally, to ban gay people from being foster or adoptive parents. He incorporated religion in his Lord’s Ranch, including alleged improper use of corporal punishment, until protests were made.
Until Huckabee came along, Suhl sometimes faced regulatory difficulties. But they eased during the Huckabee reign. It is perhaps coincidental that Suhl’s indictment says his bribes to Jones began about three months after Mike Beebe became governor. Perhaps Suhl decided he needed a Democratic friend in the new administration and turned to Jones. Beebe did not reappoint him to the child welfare board. Beebe also took some modest steps at reforming a system in which Arkansas spent a disproportionate amount compared with other states on expensive inpatient mental health treatment. Suhl was prepared to adapt with a growing community-based business. He adapted, too, by having friends in the system that made referrals for services.
It took a team of federal public corruption specialists to finally get prosecutable goods on Suhl, though there was ample reason to look closely at him, as investigative reporting over the years in the Times, particularly by Mary Jacoby in 2009, illustrated. But these days, legislators seem unconcerned about the Ted Suhls. Instead, they obsess that a poor person might have a few hundred dollars in assets and still get Medicaid. They also want to drug-test the poor wretches and submit them to work rules. People who draw tens of millions in state money suffer far fewer indignities.
DHS is the state’s biggest agency and the most difficult to run. Poor people — sick, disabled, dislocated — aren’t easily repaired. People with the best of intentions — and these include the overwhelming majority of the thousands of people in the DHS system — make mistakes at times, or at least ill-fated decisions in cases where there are no good solutions. It is an agency, too, that must battle entrenched political interests — the agencies that are paid millions to do everything from feed poor kids in the summer to care for abused children, fractured families and the infirm aged. DHS has no lobbyists with credit cards or money for campaign contributions. It must be sensitive to pressure-wielding legislators such as Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), who committed what would now be a crime in giving away adopted children to the home of a sex abuser. He continues to get a decent living from government money paid to the religion-influenced daycare he operates.
DHS responds to criticism such as mine by saying 1) it tries hard and 2) it can’t have its inspectors in every school or clinic or residential facility at every minute. I know. And, believe me, the operators know it. The unscrupulous — think Ted Suhl and Justin Harris — take advantage. I don’t blame DHS for that. I blame legislators who worry more that a poor person might get undeserved alms than about Ted Suhl bribing a state legislator to get rich.