Editor’s Note: In past years, we have published a top 10 list of stories we felt were the 10 most important of the year. This year, we have condensed that list to five. This is the story we feel is the most important, in terms of news value, for 2018.
When Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV was sworn-in as Jefferson County judge on Jan. 1, 2016, many viewed it as the latest stop in a political career that began with service in the Arkansas House and Senate from 1999 to 2015.
Almost a year-and-a-half later, Wilkins had resigned, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to accept bribes, and in January 2019 could be headed to a federal prison when he faces Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller.
In February of this year, Wilkins was interviewed by the FBI, which was looking into allegations against Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford, a lobbyist. During that interview, Wilkins admitted to conspiring to accept over $80,000 in bribes and devising a scheme to conceal the payments as donations to St. James United Methodist Church, where he was pastor at the time. He subsequently resigned from the church.
In entering the plea on April 30, Wilkins acknowledged that while a state lawmaker from 2010 to 2014, he accepted a series of bribes from lobbyists and nonprofit organizations; in exchange, he voted in favor of specific legislation and steered about $245,000 to entities that funneled bribes to him through his church.
Wilkins resigned as Jefferson County judge in March and was replaced by Booker Clemons, a former legislator himself. Clemons will leave office Dec. 31 and will be replaced by retired Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson, who defeated former County Judge Dutch King in the May Democratic primary.
Wilkins’ sentencing hearing is currently set for Jan. 30 after it had been postponed twice in December. The charge of conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States carries a maximum penalty of not more than five years in a federal prison, a fine of not more than $250,000, and not more than three years supervised release.
In addition to the federal charges, an audit of county finances by the State Division of Legislative Audit turned up several findings that were referred to Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter in November.
Specifically, the county judge at that time (Wilkins) paid $2,000 to a business owned by a county employee to host a candlelight vigil and $750 to the wife of a county employee for a water tank without authorizing ordinances from the Quorum Court. Also, the county made payments to organizations in violation of state law that provides that no county can appropriate or obtain funds for any corporation, association, institution or individual.
The funds were paid to the following: Grassroots Consulting for $8,125; Community Empowerment Council for $5,000; De’Nes Productions for $2,000; and Salvation Army of Pine Bluff for $2,000.