Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ted Suhl trial, day 5: The defendant speaks

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2016 at 11:47 PM

click to enlarge FAMILY BUSINESS: Ted Suhl leaving the federal courthouse on the first day of the trial, accompanied by members of his family - NELSON CHENAULT
  • NELSON CHENAULT
  • FAMILY BUSINESS: Ted Suhl leaving the federal courthouse on the first day of the trial, accompanied by members of his family

Ted Suhl has been in the business of providing mental and behavioral health services to young people in Arkansas for decades. Thousands of children and teenagers have either passed through his inpatient facility formerly known as the Lord's Ranch (now renamed Trinity Behavioral Health) or received outpatient services via Arkansas Counseling Associates. Now, Suhl stands accused of federal bribery, with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging he funneled thousands of dollars to Steven Jones, a top official at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, in return for gaining preferential treatment for his companies. That helped keep clients — and the Medicaid reimbursements they represented — flowing to Suhl's businesses, according to federal prosecutors. Here's our coverage of day 1 of the trial. On day 2, jurors heard details of the alleged bribery scheme from the lead FBI investigator. Day 3 focused on the testimony of Phillip Carter, a crucial middleman in the alleged conspiracy, and on day 4 Jones took the witness stand. Day 5 is below; the trial will end tomorrow.

As mentioned earlier, one reason the Ted Suhl trial warrants close attention is the Northeast Arkansas businessman's deep political connections, including with former Gov. Mike Huckabee. But there may be an even better reason: In the 1990s and 2000s, Suhl's inpatient facility in Warm Springs, the Lord's Ranch, racked up a long list of allegations of physical and psychological abuse of children living on the remote 1,200 acre farm. Investigations by DHS never proved anything conclusively, but many former patients still insist they were badly mistreated, as documented for the Arkansas Times by Mary Jacoby in 2009 (the user comments on that article are also instructive).

It's been an open question as to whether the issue of alleged abuse might somehow enter the picture in this trial, and today U.S. trial attorney John Keller tentatively raised that issue with U.S. Judge Billy Roy Wilson. With the jury out of the courtroom, Keller said that because a number of defense witnesses today and yesterday testified as to the superlative living conditions at Trinity Behavioral Health (formerly the Lord's Ranch), their statements had "opened the door" to the question of whether the facility has ever been investigated for abusing children. The judge flatly rejected that argument, though, since the investigations were not substantiated. That settles the matter for the rest of the trial.

Instead, the day was dominated by the testimony of Ted Suhl himself. As expected, Suhl wholly denied making bribes to former DHS Deputy Director Steven Jones, arguing that a series of checks he wrote to the 15th Street Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in West Memphis from 2007 to 2011 were just what they seemed to be: good faith donations, not unlike the hundreds of thousands of dollars in other charitable contributions he and his family have made over the years to evangelical Christian causes and others. Suhl said the then-pastor of the 15th St. COGIC, John Bennett, was a longtime friend of Ted's father, Bud Suhl, and the donations were intended to support Bennett's campaign to become a bishop within the church.

Yes, Suhl said, he did meet with Jones, a top administrator within the state regulatory agency (DHS) responsible for overseeing his behavioral health enterprises. But in his telling, those meetings were harmless. They arose after Suhl was "venting" to Pastor Bennett in 2007 about his companies being mistreated by DHS "because of our faith." Bennett allegedly told Suhl that Jones — a friend of Bennett's and a member of another COGIC congregation — had just been appointed to the DHS deputy director position and that Suhl should try to meet with Jones because "he's a Christian, he shares our values, he loves Jesus," in Suhl's words on the stand today. (Bennett cannot weigh in; he died in 2014.) And so the businessman and the government official met and developed a friendly relationship, nothing more. They continued to meet over the next several years, "mostly because we had a mutual interest in Pastor Bennett," Suhl said, although they'd sometimes chat about business and politics as well, including more venting about "mistreatment" from DHS.

This narrative from the defense leaves out the central role of Phillip Carter, the former West Memphis juvenile probation officer who delivered cash from Pastor Bennett's church to Jones following at least some of those friendly meetings. On cross-examination, the prosecution raised this point repeatedly with Suhl, to dramatic effect. Carter was a deacon at the 15th St. COGIC and a friend of Suhl's. He's now pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and is cooperating with the prosecution. (Jones also has accepted a plea deal; both men are currently in federal prison.) 

Prosecutors want the jury to ask themselves this: If Suhl's meetings with Jones really were innocuous, why were they always brokered by Carter (described by defense attorneys and another witness as "a hustler" and "a local con man") from beginning to end? Jones and Suhl never called one another, phone records show. Instead, calls flew between Suhl and Carter and Jones and Carter each time before the three men met together at a Memphis restaurant, the Texas de Brazil. There were up to 13 such meetings from 2007 to 2011. During that time period, Suhl's companies received over $125 million in Medicaid reimbursements through DHS. Jones did not directly control the flow of that money, but he had the ability to influence agency policy and give information to Suhl.

Defense attorney Robert Cary began the questioning of his client. He asked Suhl, "Did you bribe Steven Jones? ... Did you tell Phillip Carter to bribe Jones? ... Did you conspire with Pastor John Bennett to bribe Jones?" Suhl responded, "Absolutely not" to each question in turn.

Suhl said the Lord's Ranch was founded by his parents, Bud and Shirley Suhl. "My father made me everything that I am," Ted Suhl said. Bud and Shirley moved from California to Warm Springs, Arkansas in 1976 and founded the ranch; Ted was in high school at the time, but later — after graduating from evangelical Wheaton College — he began helping run the family business. Suhl said the Lord's Ranch had up to 120 beds and 225 employees at its peak, though it usually housed under the maximum number of patients. His outpatient company, Arkansas Counseling Associates, had around 400 employees in multiple locations around the state and treated 3,000 to 4,00 patients at one point. The family changed the name of the Lord's Ranch to "Trinity Behavioral Health," Suhl said, because of perceived mistreatment from the state due to religious discrimination. "We felt that we'd been ... discriminated against, held to a different standard ... [and] we felt changing the name might help us."

(Later, after the defense rested, the prosecution called a rebuttal witness: Janie Huddleston, who served as the other deputy director of DHS from 2004 to 2014 — that is, at the same time as Steven Jones. Huddleston said that Suhl's companies were far from the only faith-based providers in the state: "I don't think in Arkansas we could do without faith-based providers," she said. As for whether Suhl's companies were treated differently, Huddleston said, "they all had to follow the same rules.")

Defense attorney Cary then arrived at the summer of 2011, the pivotal episode described in the government' indictment of Suhl. At that point, the FBI had a wiretap on Phillip Carter's phone, so most of the evidence presented in this trial was generated in relation to a single meeting between Suhl, Carter and Jones that occurred on September 11, 2011 at the Texas de Brazil in Memphis. Once again, the jury heard recordings of Suhl talking to Carter about two issues: DHS referring patients to a rival provider, Mid-South Health Systems. "I think I mentioned to [Carter] I was upset regarding Mid-South," Suhl said. However, he continued, such DHS referrals weren't a big part of his business. He wanted DHS to change its practice mostly for "the principle of the thing" — he felt it was unfair and also illegal, for DHS to be steering its referrals to a single provider. "Were you looking for special treatment?" Cary asked him. "No, I was not," Suhl said. 

Also at issue are monitoring reports from DHS that Suhl wanted to take a look at. "If someone's talking bad about you, you want to know what they're saying," he said today.

At the Texas de Brazil meeting on Sept. 11 (of which there is video surveillance footage but no audio), the three men sit at a table. Jones gets up for a moment, and Suhl then passes a check to Carter. Asked why he waited until Jones left the table to provide Carter with the check, Suhl said it was out of modesty: He always gave to charity anonymously, he said, as the Bible admonishes against seeking recognition for good deeds. Suhl said the trio talked mostly about their mutual friend, Pastor Bennett, but "I'm sure we talked about business too." Jones didn't agree to take any action on his behalf, Suhl said — but he probably complained about DHS "taking illegal action" regarding the issue of making referrals exclusively to Mid-South in his part of the state.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Keller asked Suhl about the assertion that Pastor Bennett effectively introduced him to Jones in 2007. Suhl said he barely knew Jones before then. "I think I'd seen him once in my life, or twice," he said.

But Keller pointed out that Suhl had entered into a contract with Jones only a few years before, in 2004. "We have relationships with hundreds of vendors," Suhl said. In 2004, Jones was a state legislator and not yet appointed to DHS, and under a "professional marketing agreement," Suhl paid Jones $1,000 per month. Jones testified yesterday that he didn't do any work in return for this retainer fee. Suhl said today that he believed Jones did "some work, some printing" and that he wasn't aware Jones was in the legislature at the time. (Suhl was intimately involved in state politics throughout the 2000s.)

The most damaging part of the testimony for Suhl, though, was when Keller played back the wiretapped calls between him and Phillip Carter yet again. Portions of the calls have been presented to the jury over and over these past few days by both sides, and at times they've seemed like a thin reed on which to support the prosecution's case. But today, with Keller pausing the recordings repeatedly and pressing Suhl to clarify the meaning of his statements line by line, they took on a new potency regarding Suhl's efforts to seemingly obfuscate his communications with Steven Jones in 2011.

In one such recording made on July 25, 2011, Suhl told Carter: 
Hey ... next time you see your buddy, I wish you would ask him, you know what, I talked to him about this before and he could put the stop to this, without it being about us ... You know, the DHS in Northeast Arkansas, they give all their referrals to Mid-South in outpatient, and that needs to have a stop put to it. ... It'd be more competitive. I'm not asking for him to give them all to us. ... He could definitely put a stop to that because that's under his purview. ... And all he'd have to do is send out a memo or start telling his department heads, 'don't do that.' ... It's any provider, whoever is providing the best job needs to be providing the outpatient services.
Keller asked Suhl today to confirm that he was going through Carter to ask Jones to "put the stop" to the Mid-South referral policy. "I wanted it to be fair to kids and all providers," Suhl said.

Keller pushed harder: "You're asking Phillip Carter to ask Steven Jones ... even though you met with [Jones] via Pastor Bennett? Even though you had previous contract with Steven Jones? Even though Steven Jones had an "open door policy" as deputy DHS director?" Keller asked Suhl if the reason for communicating through Carter was because he didn't want it to be known the request came from him. Suhl said yes, it was.

Later, in the same recorded conversation, Suhl says in reference to Jones:
But you know, there's gonna be a big kickback and he doesn't like those kinds of messes, you know. ... And I know how he is, he wouldn't say it's about us, and we don't want him to make it about us. He'd just say 'I'm hearing from these providers that nobody's able to get in.' And that's true ... They're saying we're not supposed to give anything except to Mid-South.
"You didn't want anyone to know these requests were coming from Ted Suhl?" Keller asked. "That's true," Suhl said. "We weren't cared for."

Carter has testified that Suhl would palm him a few hundred dollars in cash when they'd shake hands at holiday parties Suhl would host for juvenile justice officials, including judges — people who had the ability to refer youth to Suhl's companies. "No, that's not true, Suhl said, regarding the cash payments." And, he added, "Actually, the holiday parties were requested by the judges. ... We were happy to buy them dinner." 

"You were happy to buy dinner for whoever could help your businesses, right?" Keller asked.

In another, later call Suhl says:
I know what it is, I'm pretty sure ... But I still would like to know that it's the same thing ... And he might have some inside information on whatever Janie Huddleston is saying. ... You're really gonna have to press him, though, because you know how he is. He'll put it off, and I'd like to see them. 
This is evidently referring to the monitoring reports. Keller remarked that Suhl seemed to have a pretty good idea of "how Jones is," despite his earlier testimony that the two men barely knew each other. "I knew he was a gentleman," Suhl said. 

"You wanted Phillip Carter to press Steven Jones so he wouldn't 'put it off,' right?" Keller asked Suhl. After some hedging, Suhl agreed that that was the case.

Finally, Keller pressed Suhl on the fateful meeting at the Texas de Brazil in September 2011. If the check he gave Carter was intended only for the 15th St. Church of God in Christ, he asked, why didn't Suhl give Carter that check earlier in the night? Suhl and Carter drove from West Memphis to the Memphis restaurant together, but Suhl (despite his stated desire to keep his donations anonymous and discreet) waited until the three men were seated at the restaurant to give Carter the check.

Keller also asked Suhl if that check was the very last one his company made out to the 15th St. COGIC. Suhl said that it was. "Because there were no more meetings with Steven Jones after that, right?" Keller asked. Suhl confirmed that he had no more meetings with Jones after that date.

The defense also called a number of other witnesses today, including Ted Suhl's wife, Laura SuhlLaura Suhl's testimony called into question one of the alleged Texas de Brazil dinners cited by the prosecution: July 5, 2008. Laura said she and Ted ate at that restaurant together (just the two of them) on that date, and that she remembers it well because it occurred after they returned from her grandmother's funeral in San Antonio.

Two character witnesses spoke to Suhl's "reputation for generosity to Christian causes":  Scott McLean, who runs a "Christ-centered" re-entry program for prisoners in Little Rock, Pathway to Freedom, and Rob Smith, of the American Bible Society. (Mentioned by neither the defense nor the prosecution: The organizations represented by both Smith and McLean have both received over $300,000 each in support from the Suhl family, according to court filings.)

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