John Goodson of Texarkana has long been among this state's most prominent attorneys. He has won tens of millions of dollars in class-action cases against insurance companies and giant corporations such as Google.
Since 1998, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Goodson, his law firm and family members have also contributed more than $939,000 to state and national political campaigns. He's what you would call "a player" in Arkansas politics.
Goodson is chairman of the powerful University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees. Whenever a new governor takes office, that chief executive quickly learns that the rich and famous in Arkansas most desire appointments to the Arkansas Highway Commission, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, or the UA board.
And let's not forget that Goodson has been married since 2011 to Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson, though the two are now in divorce proceedings.
Goodson's high profile made it impossible for some of us to stop reading last Sunday when this newspaper's investigative reporter Lisa Hammersly wrote about $690,000 in payments by Goodson to former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. Newly released FBI documents note that Goodson has been a target of a federal corruption investigation that started in 2013.
The FBI closed the Hutchinson-Goodson investigation in February 2015. In March 2017, however, the agency restarted its investigation, citing fresh information "which suggests the original allegations against Jeremy Hutchinson and Goodson may be true."
Hutchinson, the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, resigned his Arkansas Senate seat last year and has pleaded guilty to unrelated public corruption charges.
So is $690,000 in payments to a state legislator (Jeremy Hutchinson served in the Arkansas House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate) standard operating procedure for wealthy lawyers?
Maybe in Arkansas it is. But as Richard Meadow, a partner in the Lanier Law Firm of Houston (which, like Goodson's Texarkana firm, specializes in representing plaintiffs in civil lawsuits) told this newspaper: "We don't have an arrangement where we pay people to send us cases. We don't do that. I don't want to besmirch anyone without knowing the facts, but if we were to consider something like that, we would go seek ethics counsel. Then, if it's a state legislator to be paid, the plot thickens. I'd be concerned he was using his official position for gain, and that's not allowed."
Julie McGee, a former Hutchinson girlfriend, said Hutchinson told her that Goodson had put the legislator on a retainer of $20,000 per month in order to have Hutchinson change the wording in a law. An FBI report dated June 12, 2013, said Hutchinson referred to this privately as "Goodson's Law."
The FBI report stated: "The witness believed the change in the law would make it more favorable to the tort work Goodson does. Hutchinson worked hard at doing this; however, it did not pass during the latest legislative session."
It's important to note that Goodson hasn't been charged with any public-corruption crimes and has denied wrongdoing. Still, it appears there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.
One Arkansas lawyer, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said: "I don't know of anyone who gives another lawyer $20,000 a month to refer cases up front" without regard to the number of cases referred and whether those cases win or lose in court.
A couple of points are in order.
First, Lisa Hammersly's reporting is another example of why newspapers, which we all know are in a state of decline, are so important in a democracy. Several documents related to the Goodson investigation flashed on a screen during a June 10-11 hearing in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker. Hutchinson's former girlfriend and two FBI agents also recounted the accusations in their testimonies. This newspaper and federal prosecutors then asked Baker to unseal documents related to Goodson. The judge approved the request and redacted documents were released Aug. 7.
This is information the public needs to know. Thanks to this newspaper, we have yet another glimpse into the seamy underbelly of the Arkansas Legislature.
The second point that needs to be made is that the long-running federal investigation into Arkansas' legislative branch--an investigation that has snared both Republican and Democratic officeholders--still has a ways to run. Arkansans deserve for all the facts to come out and for those who abused the public trust, regardless of party, to pay the price.
The investigative reporters at this newspaper will continue to do their jobs. Let's hope that the FBI and federal prosecutors will continue to do theirs.
It still stinks at the state Capitol. The fumigation process is only just beginning.
Editorial on 08/22/2019
Print Headline: Abusers of public trust