Former lawmaker pleads guilty to bribery
Former Republican state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the nephew of Governor Hutchinson and son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, entered negotiated guilty pleas to federal felony cases in district court in Little Rock and Springfield, Mo., and later surrendered his law license.
In Little Rock, 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. In Missouri, he pleaded to a single count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. He had been indicted in a dozen conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges for taking bribes to help Preferred Family Healthcare in the Arkansas legislature. The money was disguised as attorney fees.
The pleas 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 is serving a federal prison sentence, and the latter was 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.
New judge with conservative bona fides
A relative Arkansas newcomer, Lee Rudofsky, landed President Trump’s nomination to fill the U.S. Eastern District federal judgeship vacated by Leon Holmes’ retirement in March 2018.
Rudofsky, after a short stint at Walmart, moved in 2015 to be Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s top litigator. He returned to Walmart in July to be senior director of the corporation’s anti-corruption legal team.
Rudofsky, a New York native, was deputy counsel for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. He’s a member of The Federalist Society, the conservative organization that advocates for interpreting the U.S. Constitution according to its original meaning. His nomination was cheered by Governor Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and Jerry Cox of the Family Council. In a press release, Rutledge lauded his effort to end Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood in Arkansas and speed the state’s efforts to execute people.
ACLU leader to retire
Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas since 1992, has retired. Holly Dickson, the legal director, has been appointed interim director. Sklar, a native of New York, was a force for good at the legislature, lobbying for the rights of students, reproductive health care, ballot access and the rights of LGBTQ people. With Sklar at the helm, the ACLU overturned Arkansas law banning LGBTQ people from adopting.
Edith Irby Jones, the first black person to attend and graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences), died in Houston. She was 91.
Little Rock adds citizens review board, approves entertainment districts and closes golf courses
The Little Rock City Board approved Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s proposal to create a five-member citizens review board that will review complaints about the police department regarding corruption, discrimination and use of force. The board, the first of its kind in the state, will be able to recommend further investigation.
The city board also approved making the River Market district the first city “entertainment district,” a designation allowed by a new state law that gives cities the option of setting rules for alcohol possession. The new policy will allow people to walk around with open containers of beer, wine and mixed drinks in certain areas of the River Market from 5 p.m. until midnight Friday, 8 a.m. until midnight Saturday, 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday and on certain holidays.
After much debate, the board also approved closing two public golf courses as part of an effort to reduce city spending by $2.1 million in 2019 to address a shortfall. Scott later accepted the recommendation of Parks Director John Eckart to cease golf operations at Hindman and War Memorial golf courses.
New ed board appointee
Governor Hutchinson has appointed Chad Pekron of Bryant to the State Board of Education. A lawyer with Little Rock’s Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull and the father of five children, four of whom are public school students, Pekron replaces Hendrix College professor and Arkansas Times contributor Jay Barth. Pekron was widely thought to be a leading candidate for the federal judgeship position that went to Lee Rudofsky.
Pekron represented South Arkansas parents in a “friends of the court” brief submitted in an appeal of a lawsuit over inter-district transfers in South Arkansas. In January, U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey sided with the Camden Fairview, Hope, Junction City and Lafayette County school districts, which argued that permitting students to transfer out of their districts would lead to white flight and resegregation. The state appealed the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, where it awaits judgment.