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Woods claims FBI hid coercion of Hutchinson, seeks new trial

Former state Sen. Jon Woods seeks new trial in kickback case by Doug Thompson | May 4, 2021 at 9:53 a.m.
FILE -- Former state Sen. Jon Woods walks Friday, April 27, 2018, outside the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Former state Sen. Jon Woods, convicted in a public corruption scheme involving kickbacks, is asking for a retrial, claiming the FBI coerced former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson into giving incriminating information about him.

The information Hutchinson gave the FBI should have been protected by attorney-client privilege, the brief in support of Woods' motion claims filed Monday. Hutchinson was the attorney for the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to paying bribes to both Hutchinson and Woods, among others.

A jury convicted Woods on May 3, 2018, on 15 charges of public corruption for taking kickbacks from state grants he directed to nonprofit groups. Woods is serving an 18-year, four-month federal prison sentence.

Hutchinson pleaded guilty in July 2019 in three appearances in different courts to accepting bribes. Hutchinson is a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Both men accepted bribes from lobbyist Milton "Rusty" Cranford, who has also pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Four additional state legislators pleaded guilty or were convicted on corruption related charges in the investigation. Twelve employees or former employees of a Springfield, Mo.-based nonprofit now known as Preferred Family Healthcare have been convicted, pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial on corruption-related charges.

The graft involved at least $20 million taken from taxpayers or the nonprofit.

FBI investigators in the Woods case, based in Fayetteville in the western district of the federal courts, and FBI in the Hutchinson case stationed in Little Rock in the eastern court district, cooperated, according to documents filed along with Woods' request for a new trial. The cooperation should have been disclosed before Woods' 2018 trial, the brief argues.

In 2014, Hutchinson was attorney for Preferred Family, which was Cranford's former employer. Hutchinson advised Cranford there was no legal or ethical reason against hiring Wood's fiance at the time for a position in the company. This and other work proves Hutchinson's status as an attorney representing Cranford and Preferred Family, the brief states.

Hutchinson was repeatedly interrogated and pressured by FBI investigators in Little Rock to provide incriminating information even after Hutchinson said that what he knew was protected by the attorney-client privilege," the brief says.

"Ultimately, Hutchinson provided information that he obtained from Rusty Cranford through attorney-client relationship from his role as counsel to Cranford and his business. This incriminating information related to Cranford potentially being bribed by Woods."

The information used to coerce Hutchinson was provided by a former girlfriend and related to misuse of campaign funds by Hutchinson, the brief says.

The hiring of Woods' fiance is one example of the information Woods' defense attorneys should have been told, the brief states. The government used evidence provided by Hutchinson and Cranford not only in trial, but to boost the sentence Woods received after trial, the brief states.

"Neither Woods nor presumably his codefendants knew that the intentional, strategic intrusion into the attorney-client privilege was an FBI tactic, at least in this investigation," the brief says.

Woods trial judge, U.S. Judge Timothy Brooks, severely criticized actions of the FBI chief investigator in Woods' case in hearings before the trial, but allowed the trial to proceed.

This new information cited, the brief says, further shows a pattern of improper behavior by the FBI.

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