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Arkansas businessman gets 7-year term for bribery

by Linda Satter | October 28, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.
FILE — Ted Suhl, center, exits the federal courts building in Little Rock after being sentenced in a case involving the bribery of a state official.

Signaling that he was not impressed by claims of Ted Suhl's "generosity" to others over the years, a federal judge sentenced the northeast Arkansas businessman to seven years in prison Thursday -- more than four years beyond what his attorneys said he deserved for bribing a state official.

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U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson also ordered Suhl, 51, of Warm Springs to immediately pay a $200,000 fine, overriding a fine range of $12,500 to $125,000 suggested by federal sentencing guidelines. Wilson increased the penalty on his own, without a request from prosecutors, saying, "Using religion to grease the skids for his crimes is particularly egregious and hurts people who are straightforward in their religious beliefs."

After a weeklong trial in July, a federal jury convicted Suhl, who calls himself an Evangelical Christian, on four of six charges he faced: two counts of honest services wire fraud and single counts of interstate travel in aid of bribery and bribery involving federal program funds.

The jury found that Suhl paid bribes over four years, under the pretense of charitable giving and religious activism, to keep Steven Jones, then the deputy director of the state Department of Human Services, on a "retainer" to benefit Suhl's companies.

The companies provided behavioral health services for youths and received $125 million in state Medicaid funds over that four-year period, April 2007 through mid-September 2011. After Jones pleaded guilty on Oct. 2, 2014, to accepting a bribe from Suhl through a "middleman" assisted by a West Memphis pastor, the state cut off Medicaid funding for both businesses, effectively shutting both of them down.

One of the divisions Jones oversaw regulated providers like Suhl, and Jones admitted taking between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash that he believed came from Suhl. He testified that even though he never performed any substantive favors for Suhl, he wanted to make it appear to Suhl that he was watching out for Suhl and his businesses, which depended on state-administered Medicaid funds to survive.

Suhl's prison sentence was largely determined by the amount of loss stemming from the bribery scheme. While defense attorney Robert Cary of Washington, D.C., argued that the calculation should be based on the cash Jones received from Suhl, making Suhl eligible for a 33-month sentence, prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice initially pushed for the loss calculated at more than $1.8 million -- the amount Suhl's companies profited during the bribery period. That would have resulted in a guidelines-recommended sentence of 15.6 years to 19.5 years.

Prosecutor John Keller of the U.S. Justice Department also proposed two alternative methods of calculating the loss. The first was based on the total dollar amount of 13 checks Suhl wrote to the 15th Street Church of God in Christ, whose pastor, the late John Bennett, deposited them into the church's account before withdrawing about half the amount from the church's day-care account. Prosecutors said Bennett gave the cash to Phillip Wayne Carter, a former Crittenden County juvenile probation officer who admitted he kept some of the cash and passed the rest to Jones, who lived in nearby Marion. Keller said the checks Suhl wrote to the church totalled $29,500.

But Wilson went with Keller's third proposal for determining a loss amount -- the amount of additional profits that Suhl sought for one of his businesses, Maxus, by bribing Jones to change DHS policy to allow Suhl to take business from a competitor, Mid-South.

The department's northeast Arkansas office had for years been referring minor patients with behavioral problems exclusively to Mid-South as part of a pilot program, and Suhl wanted Jones to stop the practice so that one of his companies, Maxus, could share the market. Keller determined that, had Jones carried out the request, it would have provided Maxus with an additional $176,820.85 in 2011 and 2012. Consequently, that's the figure that Wilson determined was the official amount of loss caused by the bribery scheme.

That resulted in a guidelines-suggested penalty range of 78 to 97 months, or 6.5 to 8 years, behind bars, after Wilson rejected Keller's request for an enhancement for obstruction of justice based on statements Suhl made in his testimony at trial. Wilson said he didn't think it was right to punish someone for testifying, even if the person lied on the stand. He noted, "It just seems un-American to me."

Wilson took note of the fact that Suhl refused to release his financial data to U.S. probation officers who prepared a pre-sentence report, although he said Suhl had earlier told probation officers that his net worth was more than $5 million.

Defenser attorney Cary provided the judge with more than 30 letters written to the court by supporters of Suhl's asking for leniency. The letters cited good deeds he has done over the years, such as helping his employees pay their utility bills, car repairs or family funeral expenses; continuing to pay wages to employees after losing Medicaid funding; offering help to people whose homes were damaged by tornadoes; and sending vans and drivers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

"He is one of the most gentle, generous and gracious people I've had the privilege of meeting," Cary said, prompting Wilson to note that he had reviewed the credit-card receipts of the expensive meals that Suhl bought himself, Jones and Carter at the men's periodic meetings at a Memphis restaurant.

"He left a $10 tip on a dinner bill of over $100," the judge said. "That didn't appear very generous to me."

Cary suggested that perhaps Suhl had left a cash tip in addition to the amount charged to his card. He then went on to read aloud some of the letters praising Suhl as "honest, morally upright," and "conscientious." Cary also noted that until the loss of Medicaid funding, Suhl was "the second-biggest employer in Randolph County."

Besides Maxus and several other business interests, Suhl owned Trinity Behavioral Health, once known as The Lord's Ranch in Warm Springs, near Pocahontas.

Cary argued that a 33-month sentence would be fair because it was slightly higher than the sentences given to Jones and Carter, Suhl's fellow conspirators who were credited for pleading guilty before trial and testifying for the government.

Carter, the government's star witness at trial, and Jones, who also testified at the trial but questioned whether he should have pleaded guilty, both were sentenced to prison before the trial began.

In exchange for his cooperation, Carter saw his two-year sentence, also imposed in February, reduced on Sept. 9 to one year in prison. Jones, meanwhile, is serving a 2 1/2 year sentence imposed in February. Keller said Thursday that Jones' testimony at trial was "not credible," and that prosecutors won't seek a reduced sentence for him.

Suhl, who already has filed two motions for a new trial, both of which Wilson promptly denied, declined to address the judge Thursday.

Keller argued that Suhl's refusal to disclose his finances to the court was consistent with "his refusal to acknowledge what he's been convicted of, or to show any remorse or attrition."

Keller also noted that "the scheme would not have stopped had it not been for the FBI investigation," which included surveillance of Suhl meeting with Jones and Carter, and numerous wiretapped phone calls between Suhl and Carter, and Carter and Jones. Suhl and Jones, who were wary of wiretaps, never spoke directly on the phone.

In imposing an 84-month sentence, which was in the middle of the guidelines-suggested penalty range, Wilson said he would recommend mental-health counseling for Suhl while he is prison, "because of statements made in the pre-sentence report." He didn't further describe the statements, and the report isn't publicly available.

Wilson ordered that the $200,000 fine be paid within 10 days -- by 2 p.m. Nov. 7. He ordered Suhl to serve the maximum three years of probation after his release from prison.

Suhl was allowed to remain free until Jan. 2, when he must report to a federal prison. However, Cary handed the judge a notice of appeal immediately after the sentence was announced, as well as a prepared motion asking that Suhl be allowed to remain free until his appeal is decided by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Wilson said he would consider the request, and ordered federal prosecutors to respond to the motion within 10 days.

A Section on 10/28/2016

Print Headline: Businessman Suhl gets 7-year term for bribery

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