Former nonprofit executives admit roles in bribery scheme at Arkansas statehouse

Federal corruption probe entangled five state lawmakers, lobbyists and charity officials

By: - September 28, 2022 7:58 pm

(Dwain Hebda/Arkansas Advocate)

The two nonprofit executives at the center of a federal corruption probe that shook the Arkansas Capitol over the last decade pleaded guilty on Wednesday.

Tom and Bontiea Goss, the married couple who ran Missouri-based Preferred Family Health, admitted in separate pleas in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri to participating in schemes to bribe a handful of Arkansas legislators.

Bontiea Goss pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy; Tom Goss pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false tax returns.

The couple will be sentenced at a later date.

The pleas are a significant step in ending federal investigators’ probe into bribery and corruption at the state Capitol. So far, the investigation has ensnared five lawmakers, nonprofit officials and lobbyists.

Those legislators include former Sens. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) and Hank Wilkins IV (D-Pine Bluff) and former Reps. Micah Neal (R-Springdale), Jon Woods (R-Springdale) and Eddie Cooper (D-Melbourne).

Bontiea Goss

Bontiea Goss was the chief operating officer of Preferred Family, a mental health and substance abuse treatment provider. She admitted in her plea that she conspired with former lobbyist Rusty Cranford to hire Hutchinson as a lawyer for the nonprofit.

BONTIEA GOSS PLEA

 

In addition to legitimate legal work, Hutchinson was also expected to use his position in the Senate to take actions to benefit Preferred Family. In an indictment, federal prosecutors said Hutchinson added language, at Bontiea Goss’ request, to legislation he sponsored to help the nonprofit. Hutchinson is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Tom Goss

Tom Goss admitted in his plea that the government could prove he and Cranford embezzled money from Preferred Family. Additionally, he admitted to working with Cranford to bribe Wilkins and Woods.

TOMMY GOSS PLEA

 

For instance, the guilty plea said Cranford worked with Tom Goss to use cash from Preferred Family to pay Woods and that Preferred Family also hired Woods’ fiancé. In exchange, Woods was expected to use his position in the Legislature to help the nonprofit.

Similarly, Cranford also arranged a $30,000 donation from Preferred Family to Wilkins’ church in exchange for legislative favors, according to the plea.

Federal prosecutors agreed to drop other pending charges against the couple in the plea agreement.

The couple will be required to pay up to $4.35 million in restitution.

The others

Hutchinson, Cooper and Wilkins have also pleaded guilty in the case and await sentencing.

Woods was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison after being convicted at trial.

Neal, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced in 2018 to three years of probation, with the first year being on home confinement.

Cranford, who pleaded guilty to bribing Hutchinson, Wilkins and Woods, was sentenced in 2019 to seven years in prison.

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Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate
Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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