By KELLY P. KISSEL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Every minute of every day, Asa Hutchinson is a governor, a former federal prosecutor and an uncle. With a nephew implicated in a bribery and corruption case, holding all three roles cannot be easy for him.
He's expected to weigh in each time a state lawmaker falls into trouble and his reputation as a law-and-order guy came hard-earned in Arkansas: Hutchinson helped manage the Bill Clinton impeachment case before the Senate in 1999 after prosecuting Clinton's half brother Roger on drug charges as a U.S. attorney in 1984.
A plea agreement filed in a Missouri federal courthouse this month laid out charges against lobbyist Rusty Cranford, including stories of improper influence among Arkansas state legislators. Recent cases have touched both the House and the Senate.
Former Rep. Micah Neal in January 2017 admitted he conspired with a state senator and others to arrange kickbacks from state economic development grants. His take was $38,000, according to prosecutors. Hutchinson said the conduct described was "reprehensible for a legislator."
The indictment of former state Sen. Jon Woods followed two months later. Prosecutors said Woods, with Neal, had directed state grants to entities in return for kickbacks. The total amount of money involved wasn't listed in the indictment, but a significant amount was said to have been paid in cash.
At the time of the indictment, Hutchinson renewed his call to end the practice of having legislators distribute surplus state money (a practice later stopped by the state Supreme Court) and called the allegations "very troubling."
"Charges of corruption and bribery undermine the rule of law that is the underpinning of our system of government," the governor said.
Sen. Jake Files admitted this past January that he pocketed state money set aside for a sports complex in his hometown of Fort Smith. Hutchinson said the guilty plea left Files unable to serve.
"While I have known and respected the Files family for many years, it is essential that the voters are able to trust elected officials to have the public's interest free from criminal conduct," the governor said in January.
As the case developed against Cranford, a federal prosecutor revealed in court in February that former Arkansas legislator and then-Jefferson County Judge Henry "Hank" Wilkins had received bribes in return for votes on certain bills. Wilkins later stepped down as the county's chief administrative officer and subsequently pleaded guilty. Hutchinson accepted Wilkins' resignation.
Also in February, another former state representative, Eddie Cooper of Melbourne, admitted conspiring to embezzle money from a Missouri charity in return for $63,000 in kickbacks.
Cranford's plea agreement said thousands of dollars also went to "Arkansas Senator A." While unnamed in the federal court documents, prosecutors described "Senator A" as the sponsor of two bills to steer surplus funds to a Cranford client. Records at the Arkansas Legislature reveal a Hutchinson nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, as the sole sponsor of the bills. The senator's lawyer has acknowledged his client is "Senator A" but says "nothing illegal or unethical" occurred.
Initially, the governor said he didn't know whether his nephew was the unidentified legislator and said if "Senator A" was indicted, he or she should resign.
At his appearance before the Arkansas Bar Association in Hot Springs on Friday, Asa Hutchinson said there was no "higher joy" than serving as governor, then began a painful recollection of this month's news.
"I think I've been asked to comment as governor. I think I've also been asked to comment based upon the fact that one of the individuals that's had his picture in the paper is my nephew who I love, Senator Jeremy Hutchinson," the governor told the group. While maintaining a disdain for public corruption, Hutchinson said he wouldn't call for his nephew's resignation absent an indictment, saying it was consistent with his approach to other cases.
"Patience is a virtue," the governor said. "Let's let the criminal justice system work and hopefully it will work well and hopefully it will come out with the right result."
Longtime Arkansas News Editor Kelly P. Kissel has covered Arkansas news and politics since 1994. Follow him at www.twitter.com/kisselAP