Federal prosecutors say former Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, 64, pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to accept over $80,000 in bribes during his time in the Arkansas Legislature.
Wilkins also pleaded guilty to devising a scheme to conceal the bribe payments as donations to St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, where he also served as a pastor, according to federal prosecutors.
Officials say Wilkins, who resigned in March from the judge's office after the allegations were made public, told investigators in February that he took the money from an indicted lobbyist while he was still a state lawmaker.
In entering the plea, Wilkins acknowledged that while a state lawmaker from 2010 to 2014 he accepted a series of bribes from lobbyists and nonprofit organizations. Prosecutors say that in exchange, Wilkins voted in favor of specific legislation and steered about $245,000 to entities that funneled bribes to Wilkins through his church.
Wilkins served in the Arkansas House and Senate between 1999 and 2015.
“Public corruption destroys the trust that is necessary for our republic,” U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said in a news release. “In this case, the citizens of Arkansas were betrayed by Mr. Wilkins, and elected officials who abuse their position for personal gain must be held accountable for that violation of the public trust.”
Hiland announced Wilkins' guilty plea after a hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller. A sentencing date has not been set. The charge of conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States carries a maximum penalty of not more than five years' imprisonment, not more than a $250,000 fine, and not more than three years supervised release.
At a detention hearing for Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford around two months ago in Federal District Court in Missouri, Wilkins' name came up, and through his attorney, the judge said he would testify for the government in Cranford's case.
“During the Feb. 22 interview with the FBI, Wilkins admitted and acknowledged that he received funds totaling approximately $100,000 from and involving Cranford, which were at the time characterized as donations to Wilkins' church, but which Wilkins now admits were bribes for him to perform specific official acts directed by Cranford,” The U.S. Attorney's Office said.
“Wilkins further told agents and attorneys for the United States that sometime after it became known there was a federal investigation ongoing, Cranford met personally with Wilkins. During that meeting, Cranford told Wilkins he would continue paying Wilkins' church even though Wilkins had left the legislature.
“By doing this, Cranford stated, it would look like he (Cranford) had not been paying bribes to Wilkins. In addition, Cranford instructed Wilkins to display a plaque on the church's wall to show how Cranford had donated money for a bookshelf for the church. This meeting occurred toward the end of 2014, just before Wilkins left the legislature. During a subsequent meeting between Cranford and Wilkins at Cranford's office, Cranford told Wilkins how he knows he is a member of the church.
“This was stated to remind Wilkins of Cranford's talking points if Wilkins was questioned about it in the future. At another point, after the Arkansas trial of Ted Suhl, who went to jail for a bribery scheme involving donations to a church, Cranford told Wilkins he was going to make sure they didn't get caught like Ted Suhl.”