A former Springfield charity executive accused of embezzlement, bribery and attempted murder-for-hire pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court.
Milton "Rusty" Cranford, 57, pleaded guilty to bribing Arkansas elected officials in a multimillion-dollar scheme and embezzling millions from the charity along with other executives.
Cranford is a former executive of the Springfield-based charity Preferred Family Healthcare, as well as a lobbyist in Arkansas.
At a hearing in March, Cranford's attorney, Nathan Garrett, said federal prosecutors had been trying for years to negotiate a plea agreement with Cranford in exchange for his cooperation in this wide-ranging case.
Cranford agreed to help the government recover the money he embezzled and to comply with all forfeiture matters before sentencing, according to court documents.
By pleading guilty, Cranford admitted that he and other Preferred Family Healthcare executives paid bribes to Arkansas state Sen. Jonathan Woods, Arkansas state legislator Henry Wilkins IV, a person identified in court documents as "Arkansas Senator A" and others in exchange for favorable legislation for Cranford, his clients and the charity, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
Cranford was indicted in February on nine bribery charges after allegations he received kickbacks from Preferred Family Healthcare.
A month later, federal prosecutors filed a motion where they accused Cranford of trying to hire a hit man to kill one of his co-defendants in this case.
He could still be prosecuted for the attempted murder-for-hire case, court documents state.
In January, prosecutors say Cranford told one of his associates — who unbeknownst to Cranford was cooperating with the FBI — that Cranford had a job for the man that required a "piece," which is slang for a gun.
Cranford then allegedly told the FBI informant that Cranford's co-defendant Donald A. Jones "needs to go ... he needs to be gone," while making a gun-shooting gesture with his hand.
Jones pleaded guilty to his role in the charity scheme in December and was cooperating with the government.
At the end of the recorded January meeting, prosecutors say Cranford handed the FBI informant $500 cash and vowed they would talk again later.
When Cranford was arrested in March, federal prosecutors say he had liquidated some of his assets, changed his appearance and obtained a gun.
Preferred Family Healthcare and its subsidiaries provide a variety of services, including mental and behavioral health treatment, substance abuse treatment and employment assistance.
Federal prosecutors say multiple executives of Preferred Family Healthcare were involved in a $4 million scheme related to unlawful political contributions, unreported lobbying and kickbacks.
Jones, who prosecutors say was the target of Cranford's murder-for-hire attempt, pleaded guilty to his role in the charity scheme in December.
Another man, former Arkansas lawmaker Eddie Wayne Cooper, of Melbourne, Arkansas, also pleaded guilty in the financial scheme in February.
Cranford has not been charged with any crimes related to the alleged murder-for-hire scheme.
Spokesman Reggie McElhannon released the following statement on behalf of Preferred Family Healthcare:
"Mr. Cranford's guilty plea contains admissions and allegations which demonstrate clearly the extent to which Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH) was victimized by the actions of former employees and representatives of PFH. The actions of those individuals placed personal financial gain over the charitable mission of Preferred Family Healthcare. Their actions do not in any way reflect the values, behaviors, or actions of our current leadership and the more than 4,000 dedicated employees who daily work to provide much needed services in countless communities.
"Times have changed. We have changed as well. We have new leadership and have enacted significant measures to enhance accountability and compliance moving forward. What we haven't changed, and will not change, is the commitment of our talented caregivers to the exceptional care and critical services we offer thousands of clients across five states.
"Preferred Family Healthcare will continue its cooperation and assistance with investigative agencies, and hopes to recover any misappropriated funds so those funds can be used for the benefit of our communities and beneficiaries."
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