During an arraignment hearing in a Springfield, Missouri federal court on Friday, US Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich accused Arkansas Judge Hank Wilkins of taking a $100,000 bribe during his tenure in the Arkansas State Legislature.
Bombshell from the Ozarks
Judge Wilkins was not on trial in the southwest Missouri courtroom, nor has he yet been formally indicted for any wrongdoing. The hearing was actually to determine bail for lobbyist Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford. Cranford has been indicted on multiple corruption charges and Mohlhenrich was arguing he be denied bail. The US Attorney claimed that Cranford had tried to kill one witness, and had persuaded others, including Hank Wilkins, to lie to investigators.
And that is not all. Not only was the sitting judge being accused of graft-taking, but he also appears to have admitted it nearly a month ago.
According to Mohlhenrich, Wilkins (who also served as senior pastor at Saint James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff until June 2017) confirmed that he took the bribe when interviewed by FBI investigators in late February. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Wilkins told the FBI in his February statement that donations Cranford made to his church were in fact bribes for Wilkins’ support as a state lawmaker from 2011 to 2015.”
There is even a plaque commemorating the donation from Cranford on the wall of Wilkins’ church.
But despite the knowing that his bribery confession was bound to be made public during Cranford’s prosecution, Wilkins has stayed in place.
Hank Wilkins won’t you please step down!
Admitting to the FBI that he had taken a bribe was undoubtedly the right thing to do (although not as good as not taking the bribe in the first place). But it does beg the question: if Judge Wilkins knew he was going to be outed as a bribe taker, why has he not resigned from the bench nearly a month on from that admission?
The FBI interview took place a day after Cranford’s indictment, so it seems unlikely the FBI would have needed Wilkins to keep his admission secret. Even if they did, would they have asked him to stay in post, continuing to preside as a judge when they knew that his credibility was on the verge of being destroyed in public?
For whatever reason, Wilkins has stayed in post, and the public calls for him to resign are already appearing.
A popular Democratic politician, Wilkins served in the Arkansas legislature for nearly two decades. Initially elected in 1998 to the State House of Representatives, before making the jump to the Arkansas Senate two years later. He left the legislature in 2015, and is currently serving as a judge for Jefferson County. Wilkins has announced he will not stand for re-election, but still has six months left in his term.
No comment, but not for long
As of Monday morning, Judge Wilkins has so far not made any public statement. And he remains listed as the Judge for Jefferson County, the Eleventh West Judicial Circuit, on the official online Arkansas judiciary directory.
With media interest growing, both Wilkins’ silence and position on the bench do not look likely to last long.
Later today the Jefferson County Quorum Court will be meeting. As county judge, Wilkins serves as the chief executive of the Quorum Court. If he shows up for the meeting, it seems likely his bribery admission to the FBI might come up.
According to fellow Quorum Court member Ted Harden, he was not totally surprised by the bribery allegation, saying, “There has been some talk going around for some time about some of these issues, but I hate to comment on speculation. But it is my understanding that he admitted (taking bribes) and that really casts a bad shadow on things in Jefferson County.”
If the scathing editorial in the Pine Bluff Commercial is anything to go by, Hank Wilkins will be facing a growing amount of pressure to quite soon:
“[T]his isn’t a case of innocent until proven guilty — he admitted the wrongdoing — we feel like the judge has no other option than to immediately step down from his post.
“…We can’t imagine the looks on prospective business investors’ faces when they come to town and find out that there is a politician who has admitted corruption running our county.
“…Judge Wilkins, we are ashamed of you. We put our trust in you to do the right thing for us while you were in the Legislature. Further, in your role as a pastor, you took money borne out of sin and funneled it into a house of God.”
UPDATE: On 30 April Hank Wilkins pleaded guilty to conspiracy to accept bribes in US Federal Court. Since then a separate investigation has been opened into Wilkins secretly changing locks to the offices of the Jefferson County Elections Commission.