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High crime 

Since President Trump has been terrifying us about a huge national crime epidemic, it's time to mention that we have a doozy in Arkansas. There's been nothing like it in at least a hundred years.

But the predators are the white-collar kind and they only corrupt government and empty the public purse. The politicians who are headed to prison are God-fearing Christians who were elected for their piety, and they and probably their criminal collaborators wouldn't harm a hair on your head. Friends and pastors testify at their sentencings about the good they do when they aren't conniving to steal from the public accounts or giving their friends and benefactors the pass code to tens of millions of dollars of Medicaid largesse and state general-improvement funds.

For three years, the prints have carried stories about the fraud at a little Bible college outside the Ozark hamlet of Elm Springs that no one had heard of outside the rural township where Ecclesia College trained a few dozen youngsters in Bible studies, Christian counseling or sports management. State Sen. Jon Woods set up a scheme to get a dozen or so fellow legislators from Northwest Arkansas to channel some $700,000 of your taxes to the college's president so he could buy real estate around the rural school and then kick back part of the money to Woods and his friend Rep. Micah Neal.

Woods got 18 years and four months in federal prison last week and was ordered to pay $1,626,500 in restitution. The judge listened to pleas to go easy on this wonderful Christian man, but the judge was unmoved, noting that it took nearly three weeks for prosecutors to put on the evidence of all his crimes. It seemed, the judge said, that Woods had nothing on his mind as a public servant but to make money for himself and his friends, including a big salary for his girlfriend from a Missouri corporation that was trying to get deeper into the Arkansas Medicaid trough.

So far, only six legislators have been convicted or charged with crimes in the investigation of a Northwest Arkansas planning district's distribution of lawmakers' pot of surplus state funds. Many other lawmakers have been implicated in the schemes, although most of them so far seem not to have criminal culpability — only ignorance or bad judgment. Lobbyists and consultants who collaborated with them are going to jail, along with the Ecclesia president.

Jon Woods was emblematic of a modern breed of legislator, one who, as observed last week by Rex Nelson, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist and Arkansas promoter, runs for the legislature just to make a good living. He looked for ways to monetize everything. A fellow Republican senator had reported a bribe offer from Woods in 2011, when there were fears that the three Democrats on the state Board of Apportionment would throw neighboring Republicans into the same district to get rid of a few of them and create more Democratic openings. Woods told his colleague that for $10,000 he would move into another district. But the Democrats didn't gerrymander them and both kept their seats. Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) was obliged to report the attempted bribery to the prosecutor, but he refused to wear a microphone and tape Woods, which would have exposed a rising Republican star. When Woods landed a swell apartment in the state building across the street from the Capitol, fellow Republican Sen. Denny Altes of Fort Smith was envious and paid Woods $5,000 to rent his taxpayer-subsidized apartment.

Last year, Mike Maggio, a Republican circuit judge, went to prison for 10 years for taking a bribe arranged by the former state Republican chairman and Republican leader of the state Senate to cut $4.2 million from the judgment against a nursing-home titan for the family of a woman who died from mistreatment in a nursing home. The bribe came through a series of sham political action committees.

You might remember Ted Suhl and Justin Harris, whose Arkansas misdeeds made the national news in 2015 and 2016. Suhl, a supporter and benefactor of Gov. Mike Huckabee, ran a behavioral residential facility in Northeast Arkansas called The Lord's Ranch, which operated with millions of federal and state dollars. Suhl flew Huckabee around the country on his plane. In 2016, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in federal prison and fined $200,000 for bribing a state administrator and former legislator to get more tax money sent to The Lord's Ranch. Suhl transmitted the bribe through the politician's West Memphis church.

Harris was a state representative at West Fork who started a preschool and daycare called Growing God's Kingdom, which got 90 percent of its money from the state and special favors from the state Division of Children and Family Services. He used his legislative muscle to control the state office, including adopting two girls, age 3 and 5, for which social workers said the Harrises were not proper parents. Harris deemed the girls possessed by Satan and kept them locked in a room, even while claiming state payments for them daily at his preschool. He finally "rehomed" them to a friend, who was convicted of sexually abusing one of them. The legislature finally made Harris' actions criminal — in the future, not applying to him.

Nelson, the communications director for three Republican politicians and who does not go around badmouthing politicians, made another subtle observation: that the new breed of legislator, whether a member or not, tends to show up at every interim committee meeting, sign the sheet for his $150-or-so per diem and go about his business.

Just the other day they showed up in droves for a meeting of Governor Hutchinson's celebrated regulation-killing committee. Among other empty gestures, they abolished the lengthy rules adopted some 40 years ago on how to operate vehicle-safety inspection stations, which themselves were ended two decades ago. The rules were in a dusty file, not costing the state a dime or anyone inconvenience. It allowed the governor to brag about vast tax savings by ending corrosive regulations.

Modern state government at work.

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