Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Former state department deputy director convicted for bribery tapped for new West Memphis role

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West Memphis plans to fill a newly created department-head job by hiring Steven Jones, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to taking bribes while he was deputy director of the state Department of Human Services.

Mark Hayes, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said Tuesday that he wasn’t aware of “any state law or any state ethical constraint” that generally bars local governments from hiring convicted felons.

A news release from the city this week listed Jones’ past job experience but omitted the federal court convictions.

Jones and Mayor Marco McClendon, who made the announcement, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Council Member James Holt Sr. said council members are aware of Jones’ criminal record. Although the mayor has tapped Jones to take the job, Holt said the City Council will consider the appointment at a meeting in early November.

“Some highly regarded people have recommended” Jones, Holt said. “I’m reviewing it all before I put my vote on it. But we know about his past. I’ve known Steve the whole time.”

Jones pleaded guilty in federal court Aug. 18, 2014, in connection with a bribery scheme involving the solicitation and acceptance of cash and valuables from Ted Suhl, the owner of two mental-health businesses that served children and received Medicaid funds.

Suhl’s Maxus Inc. and Trinity Behavioral Health — formerly known as The Lord’s Ranch — received more than $125 million in state-administered Medicaid funds between April 2007 and September 2011.

Jones admitted that while he was the state deputy director overseeing Medicaid, he agreed in exchange for the bribes to perform official acts that benefited Suhl and his businesses, according to a release by the U.S. Department of Justice.

West Memphis’ new position of director of business and community relations will be responsible for “conceptualizing, developing and facilitating the implementation of projects related to building better relations with our residents, business owners and collaborating with community support services and organizations, churches and local schools,” the city’s announcement said.

More information about the new West Memphis job, including Jones’ proposed salary, was not available Tuesday.

The mayor’s announcement included several paragraphs about Jones’ previous job experience, including senior vice president at Southern Bancorp Community Partners, general manager of Crittenden Publishing Co., appointee on the Delta Regional Authority Board, and city council and Chamber of Commerce member in eastern Arkansas. Jones is also a former state legislator.

As a city department head, he likely would propose budgets for his department, according to local government experts. A financial director, mayor and city council normally oversee spending.

While public and private agencies are allowed to consider criminal histories in hiring, requirements vary from state to state. For certain jobs, such as law enforcement officers, people are usually barred from having felony convictions. States also restrict hires based on the type of felony convictions and the jobs a felon is seeking.

In Arkansas, a licensed child care facility, for example, is prohibited from hiring anyone convicted of a violent felony or a criminal sexual act, according to Arkansas Code Annotated 20-38-105. But that law also sets conditions that might allow employment under certain circumstances, including whether the offenses and prison terms were five or 10 years in the past.

Jones was sentenced in February 2016 to 30 months in prison and a year of supervised release, and he was required to pay a $6,000 fine, according to federal court records. He was released Dec. 26, 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

Suhl was sentenced to seven years in prison after his October 2016 conviction. President Donald Trump commuted his sentence in July.

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