The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated allegations that Arkansas businessman Ted Suhl bribed "multiple state legislators" and "members of the juvenile court system in Arkansas," a department attorney told a judge Wednesday, according to a transcript.
The transcript filed Thursday reflects the early part of a hearing on several pretrial motions that U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson considered in Suhl's federal bribery case.
The 61-year-old Warm Springs man ran two counseling businesses that provided mental health services to children across the state and that received more than $90 million in Medicaid funds over five years, before the state cut off Medicaid funding for the businesses in 2014 upon learning of the federal investigation.
Suhl is set for trial beginning July 12 in Wilson's Little Rock courtroom on six charges accusing Suhl of paying thousands of dollars between April 2007 and February 2012 to influence Steven B. Jones, then a state Department of Human Services deputy director, to take official actions and share proprietary information that benefited Suhl's businesses.
Jones, 51, pleaded guilty, admitting he received $10,000 to $20,000 in bribes from Suhl through two other men, and is serving a 2½-year prison sentence. Phillip Carter, 47, a former West Memphis city councilman and Crittenden County juvenile probation officer, also pleaded guilty, admitting he was one of the middlemen. He is serving a two-year sentence.
The Human Services Department, for which Jones oversaw several divisions, is the state's largest agency and is the administrator for Medicaid, a program that provides state and federal funds to help the poor and disabled.
In efforts to have Suhl's indictment thrown out, his attorneys argued that federal prosecutors intentionally delayed the indictment until after the other middleman, the Rev. John Bennett of West Memphis, died of a lingering illness. The attorneys said they believed that Bennett's testimony would clarify that the money Suhl gave to him constituted church donations, not bribes.
But prosecutors said they expected Bennett's testimony to incriminate Suhl, who they said used Carter and Bennett as intermediaries to pass cash to Jones, to prevent Suhl and Jones from being seen together in public.
In defense of the delay in bringing an indictment, attorney John Keller of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section told Wilson the reason the case took so long to investigate was that the department was overwhelmed by "multiple schemes" involving Suhl that it needed to look into.
"So there's a scheme that's charged here in the indictment involving bribery of Steven Jones, but there was also a scheme involving multiple state legislators in which there was evidence that the defendant was making conduit contributions to those state legislators through family members, through friends, through his businesses, in order to bribe those legislators to get their assistance on legislation that would affect his businesses," Keller said, according to the transcript.
He continued: "There was evidence uncovered that the defendant was bribing members of the juvenile court system in Arkansas in order to obtain as many referrals of juveniles in the juvenile justice system to his mental health counseling facilities as possible. The evidence showed that he was providing entertainment for personnel at the juvenile court, that he was providing employment for family members of juvenile court personnel."
"All of these schemes," Keller said, "had to be investigated somewhat contemporaneously. So there are interviews in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, subpoenas being issued, information being reviewed by the FBI. And then, as the FBI started to get a clear picture of the different schemes that were available here, the prosecutors had to analyze that evidence in detail ... and make a prosecutorial decision as to, OK, what scheme are we going to focus on? What scheme do we have the best evidence on? What scheme do we think the policy reasons favor charging?"
Keller didn't identify the state legislators by name or district, nor did he specify which "members of the juvenile court system" he was referring to. He also didn't say whether the investigation is over or ongoing, or whether any indictments are possible.
Keller and other Justice Department attorneys at the hearing refused to speak to a reporter afterward, citing policy. The department and the local U.S. attorney's office both have policies of refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any investigations.
Suhl's local attorney, Chuck Banks of Little Rock, didn't return a call Friday afternoon. Suhl's lead attorney in the bribery case, Robert Cary of the Williams and Connolly firm in Washington, D.C., also didn't return a call.
But according to the transcript of Wednesday's hearing, Cary downplayed Keller's comments about multiple investigations of Suhl, pointing out that Suhl has been indicted only in the case involving Jones and Carter.
"To the extent that they have investigated other alleged schemes that they believe may have involved Mr. Suhl, they did not indict on any of those and they are unrelated to this particular scheme," Cary said.
He added that the government's decision-making process "doesn't count" as an acceptable reason for the investigative delay.
Wilson ultimately denied the motion to dismiss the indictment, saying, "I do not believe the prosecution caused a delay for tactical advantage, nor do I believe they were negligent" in failing to prepare an indictment before Bennett's death.
Wilson said he would take under advisement a couple of other motions seeking dismissal of specific charges and that he will issue written orders on them.
During the hearing, Wilson also acknowledged that he intends to meet with a Justice Department employee who, under the federal Classified Information Procedures Act, is to review court procedures for handling classified information that could be disclosed. The department said that in the Suhl case, "the government identified an extremely limited universe of classified material" and is "initiating CIPA proceedings ... in an abundance of caution."
Cary told the judge, "We're a little astonished that there's potential national security information in this case, but we have no objection to the procedure approved by the government."
Wilson said Wednesday that on June 28, he intends to meet with the Classified Information Procedures Act officer "who has the confidential documents ... and will decide if there's anything in there that's discoverable" or that needs to be handed over to the defense.
Cary noted that throughout the investigation of Suhl, "there were multiple changes in the prosecution team."
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, whose office handles most prosecutions in the Eastern District of Arkansas, said Friday that although Suhl was indicted in December through the Little Rock office, the U.S. attorney's office eventually handed the case off to the Justice Department "as a matter of resource allocation."
"It was simply a matter of having enough resources to handle the case," spokesman Chris Givens said.
Court documents show that three Washington, D.C.-based attorneys from the Justice Department are prosecuting the case, while Suhl has five attorneys, including Cary and Banks, representing him.
With the exception of Banks, the defense attorneys are all part of the Williams & Connolly firm in Washington, D.C.
A Section on 06/18/2016
Print Headline: In Arkansan's bribe case, U.S. says it probed ties to legislators, others