LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An ex-lobbyist admitted taking part in a multimillion-dollar bribery and embezzlement scheme in a set of federal court documents Thursday that detailed $500,000 in payments benefiting an Arkansas state senator believed to be the governor's nephew.
Rusty Cranford of Rogers admitted paying bribes to former state Sen. Jon Woods, former state Rep. Henry Wilkins IV and a legislator identified only as "Arkansas Senator A." Cranford also confessed to embezzling from the Missouri-based nonprofit where he worked. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
According to federal prosecutors, the lawmakers diverted state funds and performed legislative favors for Cranford and companies he represented, at times holding up state agency budgets. The government said the extra income enabled Cranford and others to skim money from Springfield, Missouri-based Preferred Family Healthcare, a charity with operations in Arkansas.
Woods has been convicted, and Wilkins has pleaded guilty. Both await sentencing. A plea agreement and bill of information unveiled Thursday described "Senator A" as the sponsor of two bills in 2015 to steer surplus state funds to a Cranford client. Legislative records show that state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson was the sole sponsor of Senate bills 62 and 655.
"I have reviewed Rusty Cranford's plea agreement. I am confident that Senator Hutchinson, a lawyer and part time legislator, did nothing illegal or unethical," Tim Dudley, Hutchinson's lawyer, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "... from the description in the plea agreement and Information, it appears that Senator A is Jeremy Hutchinson."
Hutchinson's uncle is Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said he didn't know whether his nephew was the unidentified legislator.
"Without any doubt, the allegations that are contained in the indictment and the factual statement are profoundly serious and undermine the system of legislative process that the public relies upon, it undermines the confidence that the public has in their government," Hutchinson said during a previously scheduled briefing with reporters in his office Thursday.
"If state Senator A is indicted, then he or she should resign from office," the governor said.
According to the bill of information filed with Cranford's plea agreement, "Senator A" between 2012 and 2017 received more than $500,000 in cash, checks, wire transfers, retainers and attorney's fees from Cranford, his charity, his lobbying firms and clients. The unidentified senator in 2013 also received luxury box seats and tickets to the 2013 World Series, according to the prosecutors.
As part of Cranford's agreement, he will forfeit $3.7 million to the federal government.