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story.lead_photo.caption Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (left) leaves the federal courthouse in Little Rock Tuesday as reporters ask him about pleading guilty to accepting bribes and falsifying tax records. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson pleaded guilty Monday to accepting bribes from a Missouri nonprofit that once served as Arkansas' largest Medicaid provider of mental health care.

Hutchinson's plea rounded out a "global" deal he struck last month to settle separate federal cases in Springfield, Little Rock and Fayetteville. The Little Rock Republican, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee when he resigned last year, has now admitted guilt to three of 25 total charges lodged against him.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the remaining 22 charges when he is sentenced, at least three months from now, according to Hutchinson's plea agreements.

The veteran lawmaker hails from a powerful family that has produced a former U.S. senator and the state's current governor, and he now faces up to 13 years in federal prison.

Connected political corruption investigations in Arkansas and Missouri have netted 14 guilty pleas or jury trial convictions in federal court over the past 2½ years, but none of the former lawmakers, lobbyists, health care executives or others ensnared have a higher profile than Hutchinson.

Neither Hutchinson nor his attorney, Tim Dudley of Little Rock, took questions or commented outside Monday's 15-minute hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Rush.

Hutchinson pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge during the hearing, specifically acknowledging that he accepted bribes from a federally funded nonprofit in exchange for legislative action.

His plea deal adds to a mounting list of potential witnesses against the nonprofit's former chief financial and operating officers, who have pleaded innocent to more than 20 charges each.

Before the hearing, a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter heard Dudley tell Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich of Missouri's Western District that Hutchinson would meet with him later on Monday, after a routine post-plea meeting with the U.S. Probation Office.

Dudley and Mohlhenrich did not discuss what their meeting would entail nor say whether investigators or representatives from other U.S. attorneys' offices would attend.

A defense attorney who practices in federal court and is unaffiliated with this case previously said that Hutchinson could lessen his sentence by cooperating with ongoing investigations even after pleading guilty.

Asked last month in Little Rock whether he had agreed to cooperate with investigators, Hutchinson said "no comment." Dudley also declined to answer the question.

Hutchinson's father is former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is his uncle. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, the state Senate leader, is Jeremy Hutchinson's cousin.

Hutchinson served in the Arkansas House from 2000 through 2007. After leaving the House, he obtained a law degree and then returned to politics with his 2010 election to the state Senate.

Hutchinson immediately began accepting large sums of money from people with political interests in the form of legal fees or retainers, according to information presented in court.

Such payments are not revealed on annual financial disclosure forms, which do not require lawmakers to identify their private-sector clients.

Over the years, Hutchinson collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Texarkana law firm Keil & Goodson and tens of thousands from an orthodontist who sought to have state law changed to benefit his practice, according to court documents and testimony.

The FBI has twice investigated payments the law firm made to Hutchinson, but has brought no charges. Hutchinson has said that the firm did not ask him for legislative favors and that the payments -- made through a joint venture agreement -- were in exchange for him referring cases to the firm.

Partners Matt Keil and John Goodson, who is chairman of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees, have not responded to several phone and email messages seeking comment.

Payments made by the orthodontist were the basis for Hutchinson's guilty plea to a bribery charge June 25. The plea agreement says Individual A agreed to a consent order with the licensing board in November 2013. It describes an acknowledgement in the consent order that matches an acknowledgment made in November 2013 by Benjamin Burris of Fort Smith.

A Springfield nonprofit called Alternative Opportunities Inc., which ran dozens of Medicaid-funded mental health clinics in Arkansas, started paying Hutchinson in 2013, according to Monday's plea agreement.

The firm later merged with Kirksville, Mo.-based Preferred Family Healthcare and ultimately paid the senator $350,000, the plea deal says.

Two former Preferred Family executives -- chief operating officer Bontiea Goss and chief financial officer Tom Goss -- were indicted along with Hutchinson in March. They have pleaded innocent to more than 20 charges.

The Gosses face accusations of stealing federal funds, bribery, wire fraud and tax fraud. Hutchinson's plea deal Monday implicated both Gosses in wrongdoing.

Attorneys representing Bontiea and Tom Goss did not respond to an email seeking comment. They previously declined to comment when Hutchinson signaled that he would plead guilty to the Missouri charge as part of his June 25 guilty plea in Little Rock to bribery and tax-fraud charges.

Preferred Family at its peak operated dozens of outpatient behavioral health and substance abuse clinics in Arkansas. From fiscal 2011-18, it drew $245 million from Medicaid for mental health treatment, a review of state data found.

An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article published last year found that Alternative Opportunities/Preferred Family milked flaws in the Medicaid program while its lobbyist fought state officials' efforts to address those flaws.

Preferred Family sold its Arkansas subsidiaries in October after the state suspended it from participating in the Medicaid program.

Criminal allegations spelled out in Hutchinson's plea deal first surfaced when a grand jury issued an 85-page indictment against Hutchinson and the Gosses that was unsealed in April.

Although short on new details, Monday's plea agreement includes several acknowledgements by Hutchinson that he conspired with the company's executives to steal from and commit bribery on a federally funded program.

Specifically, Hutchinson worked on behalf of the nonprofit to stymie Arkansas Department of Human Services attempts to increase accountability of Medicaid providers and change the program's payment model, his plea deal says.

He also took lawmaking instruction from nonprofit executive Robin Raveendran, who pleaded guilty last month in Springfield to paying bribes to Hutchinson through a nonprofit organization that was funded by Preferred Family, the agreement says.

Raveendran worked for the Department of Human Services for 30 years before joining Preferred Family in 2014 as a vice president.

Hutchinson specifically acknowledged that Bontiea Goss "hired him as outside counsel for [Alternative Opportunities/Preferred Family] primarily because of his position as an elected public official."

Nonprofit executives -- Bontiea Goss, Raveendran and former Arkansas lobbyist Milton "Rusty" Cranford -- directed Hutchinson to push "the Charity's agenda forward via official acts such as holding up agency budgets and drafting and voting on legislation, including amendments," the agreement says.

It also notes that Hutchinson performed some legal work for the nonprofit, but "would have never been hired as the Charity's counsel had it not been for his official position."

Several potential witnesses to alleged Preferred Family misconduct previously struck plea deals in Springfield. That list includes Cranford, Raveendran, other former executives, former Arkansas lawmakers and a national political consultant. Sentencing in all of those cases is pending.

Although Hutchinson faces up to 13 years in prison, the amount of time he will serve is subject to a number of variables.

The U.S. Probation Office over the next three months will investigate Hutchinson's background and provide a written report to judges presiding in these cases. The judge has the ultimate authority to impose the sentence and can deviate from the recommended sentencing range.

Hutchinson through his attorney has agreed to surrender his Arkansas law license, according to Stark Ligon, executive director of the Arkansas Judiciary's Committee on Professional Conduct.

A Section on 07/09/2019

Print Headline: Former Arkansas lawmaker pleads guilty for 2nd time

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  • BillMurray
    July 9, 2019 at 6:56 a.m.

    "Over the years, Hutchinson collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Texarkana law firm Keil & Goodson ... Partners Matt Keil and John Goodson, who is chairman of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees ..."

    ...

    Also ex-husband to Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson. She was first elected to the high court as Courtney Henry in 2010. They were married on Nov. 26, 2011. (Soon after winning that election, she and her first husband divorced.) Goodson had been a top donor to her campaign, giving her about $99,000 in gifts while they were dating.

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