Preferred Family Healthcare and Person 5; nonprofit places another executive on leave in wake of corruption scandal | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Preferred Family Healthcare and Person 5; nonprofit places another executive on leave in wake of corruption scandal

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2018 at 2:49 PM

In a statement issued last week after the guilty plea of former Preferred Family Healthcare executive and Arkansas lobbyist Rusty Cranford, PFH spokesman Reginald McElhannon said that the plea “contains admissions and allegations which demonstrate clearly the extent to which Preferred Family Healthcare was victimized by the actions of former employees and representatives of PFH.”

However, the government’s criminal information describes the activities of a “Person 5” who matches the description of Keith Noble, who remained with the nonprofit until yesterday. According to Cranford’s plea, Person 5 was among those who “devised and executed multiple schemes to embezzle, steal, and unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of [PFH].” Noble has not been charged.

The Arkansas Times asked PFH about Noble on Monday; by the end of the day Tuesday, PFH had informed the Department of Human Services that Noble had been put on leave, according to DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb. Shortly before this story was set to run, McElhannon — who had previously issued a statement to the Arkansas Times that did not directly respond to queries about Noble — sent an email stating that the nonprofit would issue a statement regarding Noble this afternoon. UPDATE: This new statement was issued at 3 p.m. today and reads as follows: "Due to information obtained by Preferred Family Healthcare relating to Dr. Keith Noble, an internal review was conducted by the organization. In response, Dr. Noble was placed on administrative leave effective June 12."

PFH — the nonprofit with a vast network of service providers in Arkansas that brings in tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid funding, state grants, and contracts with the state's Department of Human Services — has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing, but it has been at the center of a number of indictments and pleas in federal corruption cases involving lobbyists and former Arkansas lawmakers. Cranford admitted to bribery, kickback, and embezzlement schemes involving PFH funds in his plea agreement announced last week.

According to the federal information, Person 5 was a licensed psychologist who “was a consultant for the Charity before joining the Charity in 1994, and thereafter held the position of Chief Clinical Officer (CCO), responsible for overseeing clinical operations and the provision of services.” During the period relevant to the criminal information, according to recent 990 tax forms PFH submitted as a tax-exempt charity, the chief clinical officer at PFH was Noble. A PFH statement from last year described Noble, a psychologist, as a “longtime executive”; a 2009 story in the Springfield Business Journal stated that Noble has worked for the nonprofit (under its former name, Alternative Opportunities) “since the early 1990s.”

According to the government information, Person 5 was “responsible for overseeing clinical operations and the provision of services. Person 5 was responsible for quality control matters for the Charity’s services, assisted in drafting the Charity’s grant proposals involving clinical and medical grants, and was a signatory on the Charity’s bank accounts.”

Person 5 was a member of the "'Resource Team, often abbreviated 'R.T.,' ... used within the Charity to refer to the Charity's highest level of executive leadership" — this description also matches Noble, a member of PFH's Resource Team.

Several key executives at PFH were fired in the wake of plea agreement by Pennsylvania lobbyist D.A. Jones last year that implicated them in kickback schemes. Former Chief Financial Officer Tom Goss, former Chief Operating Officer Bontiea Goss, and former Chief Executive Officer Marilyn Nolan were placed on administrative leave in November 2017 and terminated outright in January 2018. These executives have not been named by federal prosecutors, but information in federal court filings have made their identities clear. They are referred to as Person 1, Person 2, and Person 3 in Cranford's plea and federal information. They have not been criminally charged to date and deny wrongdoing.

After Tom Goss, Bontiea Goss and Nolan were put on leave, heading up the nonprofit was left to two longtime executives — Noble and PFH president Michael Schwend (later named CEO) — according to a statement in December 2017 from PFH. Noble and Schwend were tasked with overseeing more than 4,000 employees and 145 locations. Asked on Monday whether Noble still had this role co-leading the nonprofit, McElhannon did not reply to that query in a statement that he issued yesterday to the Arkansas Times. McElhannon noted that in addition to naming Schwend CEO, PFH in April hired Betty Dickey, a former prosecuting attorney and chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, as a special assistant to Schwend.

State officials have suggested that the departure of Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Cranford represented a clean house at PFH. Governor Hutchinson's spokesman J.R. Davis was asked in May about the state continuing to contract with the nonprofit, after the conviction of former state Sen. Jon Woods — another case that alleged kickback schemes relating to PFH. "Preferred Family has changed its leadership team as a result of wrongdoing that occurred some time ago," Davis said. In PFH's statement issued last week, spokesman McElhannon said that the actions of "former employees" of PFH did not represent the "values, actions or behaviors of our current leadership. ... Times have changed. We have changed as well. We have new leadership and have enacted significant measures to enhance accountability and compliance moving forward."

However, the government information suggests that the wrongdoing involved other executives, including Person 5:

• The government information states that Person 5, along with Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Eddie Cooper — a former state representative and employee at PFH — "embezzled, stole, obtained by fraud, and without authority knowingly converted to their own use, property worth at least $5,000 that was under the care, custody, and control of the Charity."

• Cranford's plea identifies Person 5 as part of the group that "executed multiple schemes to embezzle, steal, and unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the Charity," including misapplication of funds for unlawful contributions to political campaigns, illegal use of charity funds for lobbying and political advocacy, improper payments to Cranford related to properties he owned in Florida and Texas, improper payments to Cranford's lobbying firm, kickback schemes, improper payment of personal expenses with corporate credit cards, and more.

• The government information states that “other members of the Resource Team,” in addition to Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan, were involved in paying “bribes in the form of money and other things of value to Woods, Wilkins, Arkansas Senator A [Jeremy Hutchinson], and others.” According to the information, "The composition of the Resource Team changed slightly over time, but throughout the period relevant to this Information, the Resource Team included Person 1, Person 2, Person 3, and Person 5." A recent listing (since taken down) for a PFH affiliate, Decision Point, on a substance abuse resource website, stated that "the executive leadership of Preferred Family Care is comprised of five individuals who together form what is known as the Resource Team. ... Dr. Keith Noble, Michael Schwend, Bontiea Goss, Tom Goss, and Marilyn Nolan comprise the Resource Team."

• Cranford's plea states that "other Charity executives" in addition to Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan, and Cranford, paid bribes; that "by paying bribes...other members of the Resource Team [in addition to Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan]...enriched themselves, the Charity, Cranford clients, and others"; and that "one of the purposes for which the defendant bribed public officials was to send  additional income to the Charity to enable...other members of the Resource Team...to embezzle; steal; obtain by fraud" funds under the control of PFH.

On Monday, the Arkansas Times called PFH headquarters in Springfield and asked to speak to Noble. The call was put through to his voicemail and a reporter left a message; he has not returned the call.

Asked on Monday about Noble's current role with the company and the allegations of wrongdoing connected to Person 5 and Resource Team members, McElhannon issued a one-page statement to the Arkansas Times on Tuesday.

“The questions you pose center around confirming, either directly or indirectly, information in the government’s court documents, so those questions are best posed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” the statement said in part. “As Mr. Cranford’s court documents show, the efforts of former employees and representatives to use and abuse PFH for personal gain were extensive. The company continues to cooperate fully with the government in its investigation.”

McElhannon's Tuesday statement did not reply to specific queries asking whether PFH disputed that Noble was Person 5 or whether the nonprofit disputed that Noble was involved in the wrongdoing described in the government information. The statement likewise did not reply to questions asking whether it disputed the government’s statements that other members of the Resource Team (in addition to Cranford, Tom and Bontiea Goss, and Nolan) were involved in wrongdoing, whether those members were still employed by PFH, and whether any other employee other than Tom and Bontiea Goss, Nolan and Cranford had been terminated or left PFH in relation to the activities described in Cranford’s plea.

Asked today whether Noble still had the title Chief Clinical Officer, McElhannon emailed  around mid-day that a new statement on Noble would be released this afternoon. That statement announced that Noble had been put on administrative leave effective yesterday.

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