LITTLE ROCK — A corruption probe that’s already ensnared a prolific lobbyist and two ex-lawmakers implicated a state senator who also happens to be a nephew of the governor. A member of the panel licensing medical marijuana facilities says an unsuccessful applicant offered him a bribe that he didn’t accept but also didn’t immediately report.
And that was just Thursday.
The back-to-back bribery accusations that came within a matter of hours last week were the latest in an expanding list of cases that are threatening to undermine the public’s confidence in how Arkansas’ state government operates. With uncertainty over how widespread these cases might be, leaders of both parties are struggling on the best response to the claims and bracing for whatever comes next.
Rusty Cranford, an ex-lobbyist, said in court documents that he paid bribes to former state Sen. Jon Woods, former state Rep. Henry Wilkins IV and a legislator identified only as “Arkansas Senator A.” 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.
Though Hutchinson’s attorney said his client appeared to be the unnamed senator, he denied that Hutchinson did anything illegal or unethical. The lawmaker has not been charged.
The same day those details came to light, the state Supreme Court unsealed a letter from the attorney general’s office detailing a claim that an unsuccessful applicant to grow medical marijuana tried to bribe a member of the commission that awarded licenses for the facilities. In the letter, the AG’s office said an unnamed member of the commission claimed he was offered a bribe by a company not selected for a permit.
The commissioner said he didn’t accept the bribe but also didn’t report it. The claim is now under investigation by law enforcement.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was concerned by the allegations detailed in Cranford’s plea agreement, but avoided calling for anyone’s immediate resignation.
“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.
State Democrats used similar terms to respond to the plea agreement, stopping short of calling for anyone to step down.
“Rusty Cranford’s plea agreement reveals a stunning level of routine and brazen corruption at our State Capitol. If true, these allegations of extensive bribery mar the expectation of public service Arkansans place in their state legislators,” state Rep. Michael John Gray, the state party’s chairman, said in a statement. “If any elected official_Democrat or Republican_are indicted, he or she must immediately resign from office. Arkansans deserve better, and our leaders should be better.”
The medical marijuana bribery accusation adds a new wrinkle to the fight over the stalled effort to license cultivation facilities. Justices unsealed the letter hours after hearing argument about a judge’s decision to block Arkansas from awarding its first cultivation licenses. The argument against the licensing process includes the claim that it’s “fundamentally flawed and corrupt.”
It’s a description that the state’s top elected officials and legislators may worry voters will hear more as the headlines keep piling up.