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story.lead_photo.caption Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford, 56, of Bentonville

Indicted lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford tried to arrange the slaying of an alleged co-conspirator in a lobbying and kickback scheme, according to a federal court filing Monday in Missouri.

The intended victim was Donald Andrew "D.A." Jones, 62, of Willingboro, N.J., the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Jones is a Philadelphia-based political consultant who accepted money embezzled from Preferred Family Healthcare for years, according to his guilty plea Dec. 18. Preferred Family is a Springfield, Mo.-based nonprofit firm that operates substance abuse and behavioral health treatment centers in five states, including Arkansas.

Three Preferred Family executives — who are not named in court documents — paid Jones $973,807 in total from February 2011 until January 2017, all taken from the nonprofit, court documents show.

The money reportedly went to lobby lawmakers for Preferred Family's benefit and their own. This lobbying included campaign contributions to members of Congress, according to court records. Such lobbying is not allowed for entities such as Preferred Family that receive Medicaid and other government funds.

Cranford, the nonprofit's Arkansas 56-year-old lobbyist and a director of some of its Arkansas operations, reportedly helped arrange the deal between the executives and Jones. He received $264,000 in kickbacks from Jones in return for that assistance in setting up the arrangement, according to his Feb. 20 indictment.

Both Cranford's indictment and Jones' guilty plea were filed in the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Missouri, where Preferred Family is based. Cranford was arrested by federal agents in Arkansas on Feb. 21 and is in custody in Kansas City, Mo.

He is set for a bond hearing Thursday, and federal prosecutors are asking that any bail be denied. According to their court motion filed Monday, he is a flight risk and a danger to witnesses.

On Jan. 2 — after Jones pleaded guilty but before Cranford's arrest — Cranford called a felon that he knew, the filing states. That felon, identified in Monday's filing as "Person A," reportedly contacted federal authorities before the meeting took place Jan. 9. The meeting was secretly monitored and recorded by the FBI, court documents show.

"He's in Philadelphia. He's in south Jersey. (Whispered) He needs to go away. He needs to be gone," Cranford said of Jones, according to the FBI transcript of the meeting. Monday's court filing states: "While making this statement to Person A, Person A told agents that Cranford used his hand to make a gun-shooting gesture."

The alleged murder-for-hire scheme is under investigation in the Western District of Arkansas, according to authorities, and no charges for it have been filed as of yet.

Cranford faces one count of conspiracy and eight counts of accepting bribes in his indictment. The $264,000 in kickbacks he received from Jones, federal prosecutors say, went to either Cranford or his lobbying firms, with some going to a former lawmaker who was an employee and business associate: Eddie Cooper of Melbourne. Cooper pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme Feb. 12.

In a related matter, court records state Cranford also played a role in the kickbacks case of former state Sen. Jon Woods and state Rep. Micah Neal, both of Springdale. Cranford has not been charged in that case.

Neal pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy Jan. 4, 2017. Woods is set to go to trial April 9 over allegations that he took a kickback in exchange for his and Neal's support in getting a $400,000 state grant to a company incorporated by Cranford.

Cranford is not named in the indictment against Woods but was mentioned by name in a pretrial hearing in that corruption case. Cranford was chief executive of AmeriWorks, a Bentonville nonprofit accused of paying kickbacks to Woods and Neal in return for their support in securing a $400,000 state grant. Cranford's indictment makes no mention of the AmeriWorks allegations.

Read Tuesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.


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