Arkansas Business Year in Review: Top 10 Business Stories of 2019

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1. Casinos Bet On Arkansas

The first ever Vegas-style casino ventures in Arkansas came out of the gates this year with three shiny, towering multimillion-dollar projects in development as a fourth languishes on paper.

The Quapaw Tribe separated itself from the pack by launching construction of its $350 million Saracen Casino Resort and opening its Saracen Casino Annex with 300 slot machines in Pine Bluff.

Set to open in the first half of 2020, the casino resort project encompasses 80,000 SF of gaming, a 300-room hotel, conference and banquet centers, an entertainment venue, several restaurants, a spa, an emergency services facility and even a day care and learning facility.

Through its Downstream Development Authority, the tribe is modeling the Pine Bluff casino after its Downstream Casino Resort in Oklahoma.

The Pine Bluff project also will feature museums devoted to the history of the blues and to Native Americans and African Americans in the Jefferson County area.

Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is weeks away from opening a 28,000-SF gaming expansion in January, part of its $100 million-plus build-out that has already seen the rollout of on-site sports betting.

The overall project, forecast for substantial completion in January 2021, will include a seven-story, 200-room hotel and a 14,000-SF multipurpose event center with a seating capacity of 1,500.

Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis is set to abandon the dogs in favor of roulette wheels, craps, blackjack and poker tables.

The phaseout of live greyhound racing after three more seasons is part of a $200 million transformation that will add a 20-story, 300-room hotel with 12 penthouse suites and a new casino complex in 2021.

Greyhound races at Southland will be whittled from 6,656 in 2019 to 4,992 in 2020 to 3,994 in 2021 and 2,662 in 2022.

While denizens of Jefferson, Garland and Crittenden counties largely embraced the change wrought by a 2018 constitutional referendum allowing four casinos in the state, the Pope County electorate continues to reaffirm local opposition.

That opposition prompted the Arkansas Racing Commission to reject five applications for a Pope County casino from the Cherokee Nation, Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group LLC, Kehl Management, the Choctaw Nation and the Gulfside Casino Partnership.

The Quapaw Tribe invested nearly $3.8 million to promote passage of Issue 4 on Nov. 6, 2018. By a margin of 54-46, Arkansas voters green-lighted the possibility of new projects in Jefferson and Pope counties and allowed the expansion of electronic-gambling racinos at Oaklawn and Southland into full-fledged casinos.

2. Medical Marijuana

Bold Team Human Resources Director Misty Drennan, COO Mark Drennan and Customer Relations Director Robert Lercher with some of the first marijuana expected to hit Arkansas’ brand new medical cannabis market. Bold Team was the first of five cultivation sites to get up and running.
Bold Team Human Resources Director Misty Drennan, COO Mark Drennan and Customer Relations Director Robert Lercher with some of the first marijuana expected to hit Arkansas’ brand new medical cannabis market. Bold Team was the first of five cultivation sites to get up and running. (Kerry Prichard)

After many delays, medical marijuana finally became an industry in Arkansas in 2019. Voters approved a constitutional amendment by 53% of the vote in November 2016 to allow the use of medical marijuana for approved medical conditions, but red tape and lawsuits kept enterprises on the sidelines until this year.

The state’s Medical Marijuana Commission finally approved the 32 dispensaries in January.

“While some have complained that the process has taken too long,” the state took time “to get this right,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in January.

The first two dispensaries, Doctors Orders Rx and Green Springs Medical, opened in mid-May in Hot Springs and saw long lines and busy registers from the get-go.

The Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration, which shares oversight of the medical marijuana program through its Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, reported that the two dispensaries sold more than 26 pounds the first weekend across more than 2,000 transactions. It took the two dispensaries just a month to surpass $1 million in sales.

By the time the first dispensaries had opened, the number of approved patients had increased to more than 12,000.

Another 12 dispensaries have opened since May, for a total of 14, including facilities in northwest Arkansas and one, NEA Full Spectrum in Brookland, just outside Jonesboro, the state’s first northeast Arkansas outlet. Just last week, 420 Dispensary opened in Russellville and Fort Cannabis had its grand opening in Fort Smith.

The Little Rock metro area is still without a facility, although three have been approved for Pulaski County. Herbology at 7303 Kanis Road in Little Rock promoted a November opening but postponed it pending a final state inspection. Bloom Medicinals in Texarkana has clearance to open, but was waiting last week for state clearance of some employees.

Sales have steadily surged as the rolls of approved patients have grown; nearly 32,000 Arkansans had medical marijuana cards as of Dec. 13. In just seven months, Arkansas dispensaries have sold more than 3,800 pounds of medical cannabis. Through Dec. 16, that amounted to $25.7 million worth of cannabis. Industry estimates expect total sales in the $70 million range by 2025.

Three of five licensed cultivation centers were selling wholesale cannabis as of last week: Bold Team LLC of Cotton Plant (Woodruff County), Natural State Medicinals Cultivation in White Hall and Osage Creek Cultivation in Berryville. The other two, both in Newport, are nearing production. Natural State Wellness is cleared to grow, and Delta Medical Cannabis expects a final inspection in January.

3. Historic Flooding

The Arkansas River swells over into Little Rock's Riverfront Park on June 2.
The Arkansas River swells over into Little Rock’s Riverfront Park on June 2. (Lance Turner)

The waters just kept rising.

Historic spring flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in Arkansas, including $105 million to the levees along the Arkansas River alone. Only one death was attributed to the flooding, the drowning of a Charleston man found inside his vehicle on Arkansas 22 near Fort Chaffee. But hundreds of houses and businesses were destroyed, farmland and riverside parks inundated, sections of roads and highways washed away and commercial traffic on the McClellan-Kerry Arkansas River Navigation System halted for almost two months. The flooding and heavy rains also kept many Arkansas farmers from spring planting.

The rains had filled rivers, risk-reduction reservoirs and lakes throughout the central United States. To ease pressure on the lakes’ dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water, which flowed into the Arkansas River.

In Fort Smith, which saw some of the worst damage, the Arkansas River crested at 40.79 feet on June 1, more than 2 feet over its previous record of 38.10 feet, set in 1945.

“It surpasses all Arkansas River flooding in our recorded history,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said May 29 at a press conference. “That should be enough to get everybody’s attention.” State Sen. Jason Rapert called the floodwaters “an inland tsunami.”

The floodwaters also exposed the neglected state of the levees that protect Arkansas lives and property. Only one levee — in Yell County — was fully breached, while others were overtopped and eroded.

In June, Hutchinson announced he was creating a 25-member Arkansas Levee Task Force to examine the barriers. The Task Force will make recommendations to the governor for improving the state’s levees, suggestions likely to inspire legislation.

Many of the levees in Arkansas are old — the average age is 67 — and in many cases the boards that once oversaw the levees and their districts are defunct. The issues to be addressed by the Task Force include determining who’s responsible for maintaining and repairing the more than 100 levees in Arkansas, establishing taxing districts to pay for maintenance and repairs and the potential consolidation of some levee districts.

The levees, for the most part, held last spring. They might not the next time. And there will be a next time.

4. Trade War

The U.S.-China trade war has heated and cooled this year, but through it all, Arkansans have been caught in the crossfire.

That’s particularly true of the state’s largest industry: agriculture, which contributes about $16 billion annually to Arkansas’ economy. China bought $24 billion in U.S. farm products in 2017, before the start of the trade war, $12.4 billion of that soybean products. Arkansas, one of the biggest soybean producers in the country, exported at least $255 million in soybeans to China in 2017. The trade war is estimated to have halved these figures.

Arkansas farmers say the China market took years to develop and recovering it won’t be easy. In addition, the constant uncertainty of the trade war has made it hard for the state’s farmers to figure out the best crops to plant. And, despite the Trump administration’s promise of $28 billion in aid to farmers, many say they’d rather trade with China.

The state’s hardwood timber industry is also feeling the pain of China’s retaliatory tariffs on hardwood, with producers reporting a decline in sales and prices and cutbacks in worker hours.

The trade war has also delayed if not outright killed Chinese plans for a $410 million textile plant in Forrest City. The Shandong Ruyi Technology Group facility, capable of consuming Arkansas’ entire annual cotton crop, was expected to provide 800 jobs.

When it was announced, in May 2017, Gov. Asa Hutchinson called it “the largest economic development success in the Delta in recent memory,” and “our second-largest investment from China in terms of capital, but the largest from China by the number of jobs created.”

The largest Chinese capital investment was to be by Shandong Sun Paper Industry, which announced a pulp mill in Clark County back in 2016. Hutchinson said last month that the company was still planning to build the facility, a project now estimated at $1.8 billion, but that uncertainty in the manufacturing sector had caused the company to hold off. He said that he was “very encouraged it is still in the pipeline.”

On Dec. 13, the Trump administration announced that it had reached a “Phase 1” deal with China on trade, in which the U.S. canceled planned new tariffs on Chinese goods and China agreed to buy more U.S. farm products, though details were scarce. As the president likes to say, “We’ll see what happens.”

5. Razorback Blues

The Frank Broyles Athletic Center in Fayetteville honors a football coach who had far better staying power than recent Hog leaders. Broyles coached the Razorbacks for nearly 20 years, leading them to a national championship in 1964. The last two head coaches, Bret Bielema and Chad Morris, were fired, reaping contract payouts.
The Frank Broyles Athletic Center in Fayetteville honors a football coach who had far better staying power than recent Hog leaders. Broyles coached the Razorbacks for nearly 20 years, leading them to a national championship in 1964. The last two head coaches, Bret Bielema and Chad Morris, were fired, reaping contract payouts. (Lance Turner)

The University of Arkansas hired Sam Pittman as its 34th head football coach in December after consecutive 2-10 seasons torpedoed attendance and interest.

Pittman, an offensive line coach at Arkansas from 2013-15 before leaving for Georgia, signed a five-year, $15 million contract to coach the team that he loved as a child in Grove, Oklahoma.

“I’m a wreck,” Pittman said at his introductory news conference. “This means a lot to me.”

The Razorbacks brain trust certainly hopes Pittman proves a worthwhile investment after two expensive disappointments.

In May, Arkansas Business reported that the Razorback Foundation had stopped making monthly $320,000 payments to former coach Bret Bielema because he failed to seek a new job after being fired at the end of the 2017 season, as required by his buyout contract.

“Consistent with normal practice, the Razorback Foundation is in communication with Coach Bret Bielema’s representatives regarding our agreement,” foundation Executive Director Scott Varady said. “The Razorback Foundation is enforcing its agreement with Coach Bielema to protect the interests of our members and the organization.”

Bielema’s replacement, former SMU coach Chad Morris, signed a six-year, $21 million contract and, to be generous, was a near-complete failure in Fayetteville, winning just four games before being fired after losing 45-19 to Western Kentucky University on Nov. 9. (The University of Central Arkansas beat WKU 35-28 on Aug. 29.)

Morris’ record at UA of 4-18 (0-14 in SEC games) led to empty seats at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, despite more than $160 million spent on upgrades. Morris’ buyout is slightly more than $10 million, which will be offset by what he earns in his new position as offensive coordinator at Auburn.

The men’s basketball team fired coach Mike Anderson in March and hired former Nevada coach Eric Musselman. Musselman signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract, while the Razorbacks also paid Nevada a $1 million buyout in addition to owing Anderson $3 million.

Things weren’t all bad in Hogville. The women’s track and field and cross country teams won three consecutive national championships in 2019 with the indoor title in March, the outdoor title in June and the cross country title to cap an undefeated season in November for longtime coach Lance Harter.

The baseball team made the College World Series again under Dave Van Horn. The Razorbacks were seeded fifth but lost its two games by one run each a year after losing in the championship game.

6. College Trends

President Bruce McLarty addresses the first chapel assembly of the fall 2019 semester at Harding University in Searcy.
President Bruce McLarty addresses the first chapel assembly of the fall 2019 semester at Harding University in Searcy. (Jeff Montgomery/Harding University)

There’s more to college than football, and Arkansas institutions of higher education have a recruiting problem off the field: too few prospective students.

This situation is not unique to Arkansas. A decade after the Great Recession, it’s clear that the worst financial collapse in 80 years “did not simply delay births — it eliminated them,” in the words of Nathan Grawe, author of “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.”

As a result, the number of high school graduates available to fuel traditional freshman enrollment is waning. “We’re looking at flat enrollment for the next four or five years and then something of a cliff,” Richard Dunsworth, president of the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville, said at the start of the fall semester.

While there are individual exceptions, collective enrollment in Arkansas colleges and universities, public and private, declined by more than 9% between the peak, the fall of 2011 (176,823), and the fall of 2018 (160,615). And this fall was not going to reverse the trend; even the University of Arkansas, which had grown its enrollment by more than 40% in the past decade, reported a small decline.

The nationwide trend will not play out evenly, according to demographers cited by Grawe. While some states may see high school graduations drop by more than 15% between 2012 and 2032, others may see increases of as much as 7.5%.

Arkansas high school graduation numbers are expected to remain flat. But Arkansas, with one of the lowest concentrations of degreed residents, has another problem: College-educated parents — those whose children are most likely to go to college — are having fewer children than less educated parents, whose children are less likely to enroll.

As with any industry experiencing a decline in demand, management changes are starting to happen. Henderson State University at Arkadelphia will be merged into the Arkansas State University System, although it will retain its name and Reddies mascot. Early retirement buyouts have become common as administrators adjust student-faculty ratios. New presidents and chancellors have been hired at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, UA Little Rock, UA Monticello, UA Fort Smith and Hendrix College.

7. Solar Plus Lithium

William Ball, owner of Stellar Sun of Little Rock, at an array he designed at Heifer International's headquarters in Little Rock.
William Ball, owner of Stellar Sun of Little Rock, at an array he designed at Heifer International’s headquarters in Little Rock. (Kerry Prichard)

As Arkansas took its 2019 trip around the sun, solar power projects rose at a record pace, and lithium bubbled up as a potential new south Arkansas industry.

Together, the solar boom and a $10 million Union County test plant by Standard Lithium of Vancouver, British Columbia, led the state’s energy industry news. Both trends focus on the future.

Half of the state’s 45 largest solar projects went up in 2019, at farms, businesses, cities, counties and schools. Public projects seized on the new Solar Access Act, which lets governments and nonprofits partner with providers, reaping solar savings while the system owners get tax cuts.

Katie Niebaum of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association said 2019 totals won’t be available until March, but solar projects have accelerated this year, which had the largest increase ever in net-metering systems, up 52% over 2017. “Solar cuts power bills, and it creates jobs,” said Ouachita Electric Cooperative GM Mark Cayce. “I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t want those things.”

Solar generation relieved OECC’s peak load enough to let Cayce seek a 4.5% rate decrease for members this year, and the solar industry now employs about 10,000 Arkansans.

Today’s Power Inc. of Little Rock built several systems this year, including an 11.5-megawatt project for the city of Fayetteville. It teamed with Pulaski County on a $13.6 million solar project for next year. Scenic Hill of North Little Rock built a 0.36-megawatt plant for Arkwest Communications in Danville and is working on Arkansas’ largest non-utility array, 26 megawatts of direct current, for Producers Rice Mill of Stuttgart.

Seal Solar of North Little Rock, which built a 0.17-megawatt project for Jefferson County and is working with LightWave Solar of Tennessee on an $8 million project for Washington County, actually changed its name in 2019 from Seal Energy Solutions to reflect its evolving emphasis. Entegrity, praised for its net-zero headquarters in Little Rock, completed a 0.3-megawatt array for Arkansas Community Corrections and a 0.15-megawatt system for Ace Glass, among many other projects.

Utilities are diving in, too. Entergy Arkansas, which has the state’s largest solar plant, an 81-megawatt array near Stuttgart, is building 100 megawatts in Chicot County with NextEra Energy Resources of Florida. It’s also seeking state approval for a NextEra-built, Entergy-owned 100 megawatts near Searcy.

Near El Dorado, Standard Lithium completed its pilot plant, which will test whether a proprietary extraction process can work at scale. If so, a major industry supplying lithium battery manufacturers could arise. The test plant hooked onto pipes used in bromine extraction by Lanxess, the German chemical giant that culls bromine from the brine.

“They already have a resource and infrastructure for us to piggyback on,” Standard CEO Robert Mintak said. “We came to Arkansas, and fortune shined on us.”

8. Papers Swoon, D-G Fights

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette uses outdoor billboards, such as this one in North Little Rock, to promote its digital edition.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette uses outdoor billboards, such as this one in North Little Rock, to promote its digital edition.

In 2019, a creeping suspicion became hard truth for Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr.: He can no longer make money printing a daily paper in Little Rock.

“We’re competing against a complete disruption of the business model,” Hussman said during a disastrous year in Arkansas publishing, rife with sales, downsizing and shutdowns. “We’re competing with free news and a total shift in the way folks want to advertise. We’re no longer counting on ads to keep us afloat.”

Hussman, who in 2018 lost money at the Democrat-Gazette for the first time in decades, endured even bigger losses in 2019. So he’s cutting print publication every day but Sundays, pushing subscribers to a digital replica on iPads provided by the paper. Readers keep the devices as long as they pay their $35 monthly subscription fee.

The iPad plan, including an initial $12 million investment in tablets, seems to be working well enough to support the Democrat-Gazette’s 100-person news staff. But jobs have already been lost in printing and distribution. Newspaper President Lynn Hamilton reported last month that the statewide conversion rate to digital subscriptions stood at 73%, and above 90% in Pulaski County.

Hussman is encouraged, but not certain. “A lot of people assume that we know what we’re doing, that there’s a plan and it’s going to work. I wish I knew that was true.”

Still, the Democrat-Gazette fared better than many Arkansas papers. Ashdown’s Little River News halted publication in November, leaving the town of 4,500 without a paper after 124 years. GateHouse Media, the news chain based in Pittsford, New York, shut down both the Stuttgart Leader and the Helena World in September, but local investors bought the assets of both. Helena residents Andrew Bagley and Chuck Davis saved the World, quickly returning it to publication. But the Stuttgart paper, bought by Arkansas County Broadcasters, has yet to print again. Scott Siler, COO of parent company East Arkansas Broadcasters, promises an update in January.

In Walnut Ridge, owners John and Renee Bland sold the Times Dispatch in September to Paxton Media of Paducah, Kentucky, which had bought four state papers from GateHouse in June: the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, the Heber Springs Sun Times, the Newport Independent and the Van Buren County Democrat in Clinton.

On the bright side: WPC Journal, a bi-weekly free paper, launched in March to cover western Poinsett County following the closing of The Modern News of Harrisburg in 2018. “While most of these changes are related to one newspaper chain, the majority of Arkansas newspapers remain strong, with a viable model,” said Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association.

And closer to home, Arkansas Business turned 35 in 2019, continuing to set records for paid subscribers, for which we are humbly grateful.

9. Hospital Fortunes

CARTI personnel and others break ground on the nonprofit's new cancer treatment center in North Little Rock.
CARTI personnel and others break ground on the nonprofit’s new cancer treatment center in North Little Rock. (Sarah Campbell-Miller)

In 2019, some Arkansas health care providers saw their financial vital signs improve while others struggled.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences was one of the biggest health care turnaround stories of the year. For its fiscal year that ended June 30, UAMS, which includes the state’s only teaching hospital, reported a surplus of $39.8 million. The previous year, UAMS reported a deficit of $15.5 million. And, for its fiscal year that ended in 2017, the loss was $19.9 million.

UAMS had submitted its first balanced budget in several years to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees for the fiscal year that ended June 30. UAMS also filed a balanced budget again for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Other health care providers also reported better financial health. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, CARTI, the Little Rock cancer treatment provider, reported a $3.5 million operating income before depreciation. That’s a $9.3 million swing since June 30, 2017, when it reported an operating loss of $5.8 million before depreciation.

Still, other hospitals struggled. Baptist Health of Little Rock reported an operating loss of $20.9 million for 2018, marking the third straight year of operating losses for the state’s largest hospital system. But 2018 was an improvement from 2017, when Baptist reported an operating loss of $30 million.

It also was a tough year for smaller hospitals. In February, the 25-bed De Queen Medical Center closed, leaving behind a pile of debt and lawsuits for its owner. But in October, voters in Sevier County approved a 1% sales tax to maintain and pay for a new 12-bed hospital to replace the De Queen hospital. It is expected to cost $18 million.

Hospital management company Allegiance Health Management Inc. of Shreveport also had a difficult year. It stopped managing River Valley Medical Center in Dardanelle after cash flow problems. On June 1, Conway Regional Health System began running the hospital, now known as Dardanelle Regional Medical Center.

More bad news followed Allegiance. In August, it closed North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville and converted it to a psychiatric facility called Freedom Behavioral Hospital of Central Arkansas.And the Eureka Springs Hospital Commission said last week it is canceling its contract with Allegiance, which operates the city-owned 12-bed hospital.

In September, Bo Ryall, CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, said he was worried that a few small rural hospitals were inching closer to closing, but declined to name them. “It’s been a tough year for them financially,” he said.

10. Bank Strategies

Simmons Bank, now occupying the old Acxiom headquarters in downtown Little Rock, has received a $21 million judgment on debt owed by Suneet Singal and First Capital Real Estate Investments LLC of California. The loans were first made by Heartland Bank.
Simmons Bank, now occupying the old Acxiom headquarters in downtown Little Rock, has received a $21 million judgment on debt owed by Suneet Singal and First Capital Real Estate Investments LLC of California. The loans were first made by Heartland Bank. (Karen E. Segrave)

A cadre of expansion-oriented Arkansas lenders got busy building their franchises through acquisition and new branches during 2019.

At the top of the charts was Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff announcing its $434 million stock swap purchase of the Landrum Co. of Columbia, Missouri, parent company of Landmark Bank.

With $3.3 billion in total assets, Landmark Bank is the largest individual acquisition by Simmons. The deal followed the completion of Simmons’ purchase of Reliance Bancshares Inc. of Des Peres, Missouri, for $172 million.

In Arkansas, six banks changed hands with the $80.5 million cash purchase of Mountain Home’s Integrity First Bank by Stuttgart’s Farmers & Merchants Bank as the biggest. The addition of the $511.6 million-asset lender increased the size of Farmers by 50% and expanded its footprint deeper into north Arkansas.

First Financial Bank of El Dorado completed its $60.2 million purchase of First National Bank of Wynne, and Danville’s Chambers Bank expanded its statewide footprint to 10 counties with the $17 million acquisition of Dardanelle’s River Town Bank.

Armor Bank of Forrest City closed on its $8.4 million acquisition of Marked Tree’s First Delta Bank, and Mountain View’s Stone Bancshares Inc. struck a deal to trade about $8.3 million worth of stock and pay almost $2 million for DBT Financial Corp., the holding company of DeWitt Bank & Trust. Magnolia’s Farmers Bank & Trust extended its south Arkansas presence by buying Bank of Prescott for nearly $8.4 million.

Little Rock’s Encore Bank and Marion’s Premier Bank of Arkansas made their first moves outside their hometowns by jumping into the $2.5 billion-deposit Jonesboro market.

The rebirth of Capital Bank as Encore Bank, led by Chris Roberts, is enhanced by increased investment that boosted total equity from $13 million to nearly $50 million as of Sept. 30.

Generations Bank relocated its longtime Hampton headquarters 300 miles northwest to Rogers and pursued its first Bentonville location.

Among the other players making new market moves were Chambers Bank in Van Buren and Hot Springs; Batesville’s First Community Bank in Harrison and Conway; Arkadelphia’s Southern Bancorp Bank in Glenwood and Mount Ida; Jacksonville’s Arkansas Federal Credit Union in Benton; De Queen’s First State Bank in Glenwood; and McGehee’s First NaturalState Bank in Dumas.

Banks digging deeper into markets with additional offices included Batesville’s First Community Bank in Little Rock and Jonesboro; Searcy’s First Security Bank in Russellville; Fayetteville’s Arvest Bank in Ashdown; and Green Forest’s Anstaff Bank in Mountain Home.

Dishonorable Mention: Official Corruption

Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson has admitted taking bribes from Dr. Ben Burris, charges for which Burris has pleaded not guilty.
Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson has admitted taking bribes from Dr. Ben Burris, charges for which Burris has pleaded not guilty. (Composite photo illustration)

After entering our “top business stories” list at No. 9 in 2017 and blooming to No. 1 last year, the General Improvement Fund corruption scandal that devoured a half-dozen former state legislators and one of the most influential lobbyists in the state seems to be winding down.

That’s not to say there were no new revelations in 2019. A hearing held because former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson hoped to suppress evidence found on a computer that a former mistress turned over to the FBI was the stuff of soap operas. Instead of improving his lot, Hutchinson (nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson) didn’t even wait for a ruling on his motion before deciding to plead guilty to charges brought by three U.S. attorney’s offices — in Springfield, Missouri, Little Rock and Fort Smith. The last was a surprise: Hutchinson admitted accepting bribes from a former Fayetteville orthodontist named Ben Burris, who was subsequently indicted.

The GIF scandal — the abuse of an unconstitutional scheme through which legislators directed public dollars to pet nonprofits — will continue. Rusty Cranford, former executive of Preferred Family Healthcare of Springfield and freelance lobbyist, made his plea deal in Springfield and was sentenced last month to seven years in prison. But no sentencing dates are set for Hutchinson or for former state Rep. Eddie Cooper and former state Rep. and Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, who also pleaded guilty to corruptly benefiting from Cranford and/or PFH.

The tally of criminal convictions also includes former state Rep. Micah Neal, now on probation; former state Sen. Jon Woods, serving an 18-year sentence; former state Sen. Jake Files, freed from federal prison last month; Oren Paris III, ex-president of Ecclesia College in Siloam Springs; and Randell Shelton, a middleman involved in kickbacks paid by Paris, both of whom are incarcerated; and four other executives of Preferred Family Healthcare. Charges are still pending in Missouri and Arkansas against more PFH executives and employees.

An unrelated case of official corruption also concluded in 2019: Mickey Gates, a state representative from Hot Springs, pleaded no contest to failing to file or pay state income taxes in 2012. It was a sweet deal — he hadn’t filed state taxes for 15 years, but won’t be considered a felon if he pays the state almost $75,000. Gates, re-elected last year even after being charged in the tax case, was ejected from the House in October.

Also in 2019, President Trump commuted the federal sentence of (but did not pardon) Ted Suhl. The proprietor of residential mental health facilities had been convicted by a jury of paying bribes to a state bureaucrat (Steve Jones, who completed his prison sentence) by laundering them through a church in West Memphis. Suhl served about two and a half years of his seven-year sentence.