Another former executive with Preferred Family Healthcare Inc., once Arkansas' largest behavioral health care provider, has admitted taking part in a conspiracy to bribe former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to secure legislative favors, according to a plea agreement filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in western Missouri.
Robin Raveendran, 63, of Little Rock pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with former top Preferred Family executives Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford and married couple Tom and Bontiea Goss to pay Hutchinson $35,625 between 2014 and 2016, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said the money was from a health care lobbying group created by Raveendran and other nonprofit executives and was disguised as payments for legal services to Hutchinson, a lawyer.
In return, Hutchinson—a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson—took actions as a state senator to help pass or block laws and regulations to the benefit of the nonprofit, according to Raveendran's guilty plea filed in Springfield, Mo., federal court.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Rush accepted Raveendran's plea Wednesday morning and released him without bail pending sentencing.
Raveendran faces up to five years in federal prison without parole, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000, as well as $25,000 in restitution, according to court documents.
"By entering a guilty plea today, Mr. Raveendran began the process of righting a wrong by accepting responsibility for his role in a broader conspiracy to bribe a state legislator," his lawyers, Erin Cassinelli and Jordan Tinsley, said in a statement Wednesday.
"After decades of public service, in 2014 Mr. Raveendran entered the private sector, where he was exposed to a culture of greed and corruption that was unfamiliar to him," the statement said. "Ultimately, he participated in a corrupt practice that had sadly become commonplace for many people in positions of public and private trust."
Hutchinson has pleaded innocent to related federal bribery and public-corruption charges in the western Missouri district court in Springfield. His co-defendants in that case are the Gosses, who also have pleaded innocent. Their case isn't set for trial until 2021.
Raveendran's guilty plea is another legal complication for Hutchinson in Missouri.
Two former Preferred Family Healthcare executives, Cranford and Marilyn Nolan, in earlier guilty pleas have described Preferred Family's efforts to pay bribes to Hutchinson, often identified as "Senator A."
The federal investigation into former officials of Preferred Family and Hutchinson is part of a larger public-corruption investigation in Arkansas and Missouri that has ensnared at least five former Arkansas lawmakers, a former private college president, Cranford and a national political consultant.
Hutchinson is the only former lawmaker so far charged in federal court in both states.
While defending the Missouri public corruption charges, he has pleaded innocent in U.S. District Court in Little Rock on charges of misspending campaign contributions and filing false tax returns.
Hutchinson and a former girlfriend, Julie McGee, testified earlier this week in Little Rock about their volatile relationship and disputed ownership of a laptop computer that FBI agents used to compile evidence against Hutchinson.
McGee also has alleged Hutchinson accepted money from attorney John Goodson of Texarkana in return for legislative favors, FBI Agent James Coleman testified. Goodson has not been charged with a crime and told the Arkansas Times blog that $690,000 paid to Hutchinson was for the lawyer to introduce clients and theories of litigation for Goodson's class-action firm.
Attorneys for Hutchinson asked in the hearing Monday and Tuesday that the federal case in Little Rock be dismissed, or that evidence from the disputed laptop be suppressed. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker hadn't ruled as of late Wednesday.
Raveendran, once a state administrator for Medicaid services, worked for the state Department of Human Services for almost 30 years, from 1984 to 2013. When he left, he was chief program administrator for the department's Program Integrity Unit, which paid $73,579 per year, according to an agency spokesman.
According to Raveendran's guilty plea, soon after leaving the agency, he began working with Cranford, Preferred Family's top Arkansas executive and state Capitol lobbyist, to form an association to lobby for health care interests in the Arkansas Legislature.
Raveendran, with Cranford, set up a private association called Alliance for Health Improvement, also known as Alliance for Health Care and Alliance for Health Care Improvement, to lobby at the Arkansas Capitol on issues important to health care providers, according to Raveendran's guilty plea.
Beginning in 2014, Preferred Family and a predecessor company, Alternative Opportunities Inc., paid $25,000 annual dues to Alliance for at least three years. Other providers paid $5,000 to $10,000, according to the plea agreement.
Between April 2014 and May 2016, Alliance paid Hutchinson and his law firm six times for a total of $35,625, according to court documents.
Hutchinson, as a Republican state senator from Little Rock, filed and voted for legislation to help the Missouri nonprofit, "pressuring and advising other public officials to perform official action on behalf of the charity," according to Raveendran's plea agreement.
Hutchinson also tried to stop or delay legislation or rules changes that Preferred Family opposed, "holding up agency budgets, initiating legislative audits," the plea said.
Raveendran's plea said Hutchinson filed Senate Bill 932 in 2015 to amend Arkansas law concerning the definition of "independent contractor," to favor the Missouri nonprofit. Hutchinson also filed House Bill 1540 that year to help the company, according to the plea, and worked to block proposed regulations by the state Human Services Department.
One Raveendran email from March 4, 2015, to Hutchinson instructed him to file a mostly blank legislative bill ahead of filing deadlines in case it was needed later in an amended form. The message said: "Hi Jeremy. We need to file a shell bill to take care of this issue," according to the plea agreement.
"Let me know if you need additional information. Thanks."
In addition to the federal investigation, the office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has filed Medicaid fraud charges against Raveendran and others in cases involving outpatient mental health clinics.
Rutledge's office in June 2018 charged Raveendran with two felony counts of Medicaid fraud, accusing him of coordinating to improperly bill more than 20,000 Medicaid claims totaling nearly $2.3 million on behalf of Preferred Family.
Raveendran has not entered a plea on the state charges. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for October, and a jury trial is tentatively scheduled for November, according to the circuit clerk's office in Independence County, where the charges were filed.
"Raveendran's plea [in federal court] based on his egregious criminal conduct underscores our decision to charge him initially for Medicaid fraud following our extensive investigation involving millions of documents," Rutledge said in a news release.