The Arkansas Capitol is a fetid swamp of corruption and the bipartisan lack of concern tells you plenty.
Two things happened last week that weren’t exactly shocking but dramatized how bad things are:
• Rusty Cranford, a former lobbyist and executive of a health care provider now known as Preferred Family Healthcare, pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery. He admitted a massive string of illicit acts all resting on friendly Arkansas legislators to enrich his lobbying firm and the health care corporation. Many of the angles had been revealed in earlier charges, but the breadth of the corruption was breathtaking.
Among the specific new disclosures were details of $500,000 paid to Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, nominally as “legal fees.” Hutchinson has not been charged. He insists he’s committed no crimes.
• The Arkansas attorney general revealed in a letter the office tried to keep secret that it had information that an applicant for a medical marijuana cultivation permit had offered a bribe to a member of the commission. The commissioner said he didn’t take the bribe, but he also didn’t report it. The information oozed out in some other fashion.
It was only the latest black mark on a dismal record of the Marijuana Commission. At a minimum, it’s been incompetent. Uneven scoring, overlooked deficiencies and multiple conflicts of interest have destroyed its credibility.
Reactions to all this: not much. The governor is taking a wait-and-see approach and refuses response to specific questions about law changes that could elevate public confidence. If somebody — such as his nephew, the senator — should be indicted, well, of course, they should resign from office. The chairman of the state Democratic Party said little more than the same. That same chairman, Rep. Michael John Gray, had earlier missed an opportunity to endorse clean government by explaining away the General Improvement Fund scandal — in which legislators unconstitutionally designated recipients of pork barrel money. He said the program generally was a good thing, though kickbacks weren’t.
Good? It was an open invitation to theft, bribery, kickbacks and special interest deals. See the guilty pleas of former legislators Micah Neal, Jake Files, Eddie Cooper and Hank Wilkins and the conviction of Jon Woods as proof. See direct grants of taxpayer money to churches, including one masquerading as a college. See massive handouts that helped Cranford’s company get a stranglehold on tens of millions in Medicaid-funded behavioral health services.
Re medical marijuana: Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen tossed the marijuana permit awards on account of flaws. But the Arkansas Supreme Court, which is in an ethics war with Griffen, isn’t likely to uphold the ruling of a judge many of them detest.
Re Cranford corruption: Preferred Family has some new executives at the top, but some who helped advance the company during Cranford’s reign are still employed. It still enjoys a lucrative business that no one in Hutchinson’s government seems anxious to audit or otherwise disturb. You’d think a company lucrative enough to pay millions in bribes, kickbacks and illegal campaign contributions and live high on company credit cards at the World Series and other entertainment might be worth a closer financial look. You’d think a reopening of bids for services might be in order. The governor doesn’t. Preferred Family is too big to be allowed to fail, his people have declared.
And what if what Jeremy Hutchinson did was legal — take money to work for and vote on matters affecting an enormous recipient of Medicaid money? It shouldn’t be. It certainly should be subject to disclosure. There should be more disclosure, too, by the crop of “consultants” who’ve popped up in the legislature. Who and what are they consulting about?
It’s a rare legislator of any consequence who hasn’t had business or campaign contributions from the sewer of toxicity exposed in recent weeks. Perhaps that’s why so few of them want to make it a campaign issue.