Today's Paper Arkansas News LEARNS Guide Legislature Sports Core Values Puzzles Newsletters Public Notices Archive Obits Opinion Story Ideas

Ex-state lawmaker Wilkins to be sentenced today for bribery

by Dale Ellis | January 18, 2023 at 4:23 a.m.
Former state Rep. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff, is shown in this file photo.

A former state legislator and county judge who pleaded guilty to bribery in federal court nearly five years ago is scheduled for sentencing today. He faces a potential maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV, 68, of Pine Bluff represented Arkansas' House District 17 as a state representative from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2011 to 2015, and District 5 in the Arkansas Senate from 2001-2011. He served as county judge for Jefferson County from Jan. 5, 2017, until he resigned from the office a little over 14 months into his term, on March 22, 2018, just over a month before he pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.

Wilkins pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and honest services funds on April 30, 2018, before U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, admitting to accepting more than $80,000 in cash and donations for himself and his church, St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, where he was the minister between 2010 and 2014.

As part of his plea, Wilkins admitted that while serving in the Arkansas General Assembly between 2010 and 2014, he accepted a series of bribes from lobbyists and nonprofit organizations that were transmitted in the form of cash and checks funneled from lobbying firms to a discretionary fund held in St. James' name, where Wilkins had access to the deposited funds. In exchange for the bribes, Wilkins performed, and agreed to perform, official acts in his capacity as an Arkansas legislator, including filing shell bills, sponsoring bills, voting in favor of specific legislation and steering approximately $245,000 in general improvement funds to entities that funneled bribes to Wilkins through his church.

Wilkins was accused of directing legislation to benefit Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield, Mo., which at the time was the largest Medicaid-funded provider of counseling to troubled youths and adults in Arkansas, with 47 locations statewide. He was one of a number of state lawmakers ensnared in illegal dealings with executives of the nonprofit, including Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock, a former state senator, and Eddie Wayne Cooper of Melbourne, a former House member.

Hutchinson is scheduled for sentencing next month before U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker on federal counts of bribery conspiracy, wire fraud and filing a false tax return. No sentencing date has been set for Cooper, whose legal proceedings were handled by a federal judge in the Western District of Missouri.

Wilkins' bribery and misuse of funds came to light in March 2018 in a federal courtroom in Missouri, where lobbyist Milton "Rusty" Cranford was arraigned on bribery charges. Cranford pleaded guilty June 7, 2018, in the Western District of Missouri to bribery involving Arkansas lawmakers between 2010 and 2017. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on Nov. 25, 2019, and, according to the Bureau of Prisons website, was released Nov. 18, 2022.

Former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale was convicted May 3, 2018, of 15 counts of public corruption and is currently serving 18 years in federal prison. According to the Bureau of Prisons, Woods is scheduled for release in mid-2033.

Former state Rep. Micah Neal, also of Springdale, pleaded guilty in January 2017 for his role in the same scheme, and he testified against Woods. Neal was sentenced in September 2018 to three years of probation with one year to be served under house arrest.

In the nearly five years since Wilkins entered his plea, this is the fifth time a sentencing hearing has been scheduled. He was originally scheduled for sentencing Aug, 29, 2018, but that date was pushed back for medical reasons to Dec. 7, 2018, then to Dec. 14, 2018. After the filing of a sealed motion in November 2018, Wilkins' sentencing was rescheduled for Jan. 30, 2019, but it was then canceled without explanation two weeks before the hearing. Finally, last October, the hearing was reset for today.

Contacted Tuesday by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Wilkins' attorney, Bill Stanley of Jonesboro, said he could not comment on any reasons for the delay.

"That's going to come out in court tomorrow," he said. "It's a legitimate reason."

According to court documents from the Western District of Missouri, Wilkins had been scheduled to testify in the federal trial of Tommy Ray Goss, the former chief financial officer of Preferred Family Healthcare, and Goss' wife, Bontiea Bernedette Goss, the former chief operating officer. That trial, which was originally set for June 10, 2019, was eventually pushed back to Oct. 3, 2022, but it was canceled less than a week before it was to begin when both Gosses pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy counts.

Tommy Goss admitted to providing cash to Woods and to giving $30,000 to Wilkins' church in exchange for their agreement to help steer state contracts and grants to Preferred Family.

Cooper and Hutchinson were also named on the witness list for the trial.

Criminal defendants are entitled to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment -- which also guarantees the right to counsel and the right to confront one's accuser -- and under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, which sets forth two clear time limits: an indictment must follow within 30 days of arrest, and a trial must begin within 70 days of indictment or arraignment. Under the Speedy Trial Act, however, are a number of exceptions to the time limits, including continuances that serve the ends of justice and delays resulting from pre-trial motions.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to a speedy trial does not guarantee a speedy sentencing. In Betterman v. Montana, the high court ruled unanimously that speedy trial rights exist to protect defendants who have a presumption of innocence but said that presumption no longer applies to defendants who plead guilty or are found guilty at trial.

Information for this article was contributed by Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Ex-state lawmaker Wilkins to be sentenced today for bribery


Sponsor Content