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Lobbyist At The Center Of Arkansas Corruption Investigation That Has Ensnared Legislators

Rusty Cranford
Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

Next week, the first in a series of sentencing hearings will be held for former Arkansas lawmakers, a college president and others who were convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in a wide-ranging corruption scheme.

It’s a complicated story largely centered around Rusty Cranford, a once-powerful lobbyist. Reporter David Ramsey wrote about this in a story for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

On Feb. 21, 2018, federal agents arrested longtime Arkansas lobbyist Milton "Rusty" Cranford at a residence in Bentonville where he was staying. They found $17,700 in $100 bills in a black backpack and multiple bottles of pills for which he did not have a prescription, including Xanax, Ambien and Hydrocodone.

Cranford was asked whether there were any weapons in the home and he showed agents a Bond Arms Defender, a .45-caliber derringer-style pistol in a box in the closet. The government would later allege that Cranford planned to hire an old family friend to murder a witness who was cooperating in a federal corruption investigation against him.

"This motherf***** right here," Cranford had told the family friend, a felon who was acting as a confidential informant for the FBI and recording the conversations. "He's in Philadelphia. He's in South Jersey." Cranford then whispered: "He needs to go away. He needs to be gone." According to the informant, Cranford then made a gun-shooting gesture with his hand.

Before his downfall, Cranford had been an executive at one of the largest Medicaid providers in the region, and a powerful lobbyist who helped bankroll countless political campaigns in Arkansas and influenced state policies that remain in place today. During the recorded conversations, he complained that he was being railroaded by the feds.

Ramsey spoke with KUAR News about Cranford. His story is based on court filings in nine state and federal corruption cases and interviews with more than 30 current and former lawmakers, state officials, lobbyists and associates of Rusty Cranford.

Cranford, through his attorney, declined to comment.

Former Arkansas legislator Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV is scheduled to be sentenced on August 29 after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. Four others defendants are to be sentenced in the following weeks.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.