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Nick Wilson is a former Arkansas lawyer and political leader who served in the Arkansas Senate for almost thirty years, gaining a reputation as one of the most powerful people in the state. However, in 2000, arguably at the peak of his power, Wilson was identified as the ringleader of a wide-ranging corruption scheme. Convicted on multiple counts, he served just under six years in prison and was ordered to pay back over $1 million in restitution.
George Nicholas (Nick) Wilson was born on March 12, 1942, in Monette (Craighead County). Wilson earned a BS from Arkansas State University, and he received a law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County). He and his wife, Susan, have three children.
As a Democrat from Pocahontas (Randolph County), Wilson made his first foray into the public arena when he served in the state’s constitutional convention in 1969. The following year, he entered the Arkansas Senate. Observers of the Arkansas political landscape initially saw Wilson as a left-wing reformer, a young and energetic maverick intent on taking on the establishment.
Employing his sharp intelligence, impressive interpersonal skills, and biting sense of humor, Wilson quickly became an influential member of the Senate. Previously, as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention, he had sought to amend the state constitutional provision protecting the right to “keep and bear arms” by eliminating the word “and.” Another example of his public-spirited wit surfaced in 1973 with Governor Dale Bumpers’s effort to prevent development along five Ozark rivers. Proposing to amend the bill to also cover the Arkansas River, a change that would require the elimination of the river’s dams, Wilson made the tongue-in-cheek claim that removing all the dams would create new jobs. The governor’s plan was ultimately defeated.
Wilson’s career was marked by frequent clashes, sometimes tinged with humor, with Governor Bill Clinton. Typical was a time when Clinton and the lieutenant governor were out of the state, and Wilson, as Senate President Pro Tempore, declared that he was acting governor. In that role, he demoted Clinton’s chief of staff, Betsey Wright, making her liaison to the Transportation Commission, a commission he had previously abolished. He also made an appointment to the Arkansas State University Board of Trustees and sought to veto some bills. The actions were undone upon Clinton’s return to the state, but they earned Wilson statewide notoriety.
During his twenty-nine years in the Arkansas legislature, the extent of his influence was reflected in his position as chair or vice chair of a wide-ranging group of legislative committees, including Insurance and Commerce; Joint Budget; Energy; Public Health; Joint Performance Review; Health, Welfare, and Labor; and Senate Efficiency. He used this power base to block anti-abortion efforts, and after some initial reluctance, Wilson become a strong advocate of the state’s community college system, shepherding legislation that fostered its development and directing large amounts of state funding its way. He also helped expand state support for historic preservation and state parks.
However, at the end of April 1999, federal prosecutors alleged that Wilson was the ringleader of multiple schemes, an intertwined web of corruption that diverted $5 million from child-support enforcement and workers’ compensation for the Arkansas School Boards Association, as well as a program aimed at providing legal counsel for children caught up in divorce cases. The indictment, which consisted of more than 100 counts, targeted ten individuals and detailed an elaborate conspiracy, with the accusations including charges of racketeering, mail fraud, and money laundering.
Wilson initially denied the allegations, claiming that he was the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt. Following a conviction in November on related charges of tax evasion, he resigned from the state Senate in December. Then, in March 2000, just before his trial was to begin, Wilson pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering, a charge that encompassed the others. In June of that year, he was sentenced to seventy months in prison and ordered to pay $1.176 million in restitution. The sentence was to run concurrently with a separate eighteen-month sentence he had received after his conviction in November 1999 for tax evasion. As part of his plea agreement, he was to testify in the trials of some of his co-conspirators. Later that year, he was disbarred.
After his conviction, Wilson and his wife deducted the paid restitution on their taxes, resulting in their receiving a tax refund. They were later ordered by a federal judge to return both the refund and the accrued interest. While Wilson was released from prison in 2005 after serving almost six years, as of December 2014, he still owed more than $400,000. Wilson is reportedly living in Little Rock (Pulaski County), collecting Social Security and a state pension, a product of his almost three decades in the legislature.
For additional information:Firestone, David. “Arkansas Lawmakers Indicted in Vast Corruption Case.” New York Times, April 28, 1999. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/28/us/arkansas-lawmakers-indicted-in-vast-corruption-case.html (accessed April 23, 2015).
“Senator Nick Wilson.” Arkansas State Legislature. http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/1997/R/Pages/MemberProfile.aspx?member=N.%20Wilson (accessed April 23, 2015).
Strickland, Pam. “Wilson Charges Political Motivations behind Criminal Trial.” Arkansas Monitor. http://www.wildcat82.com/ArkansasMonitor/news/nick_wilson_trial.html (accessed April 23, 2015).
“Wilson Sentenced to 70 Months, $1.176 Million Restitution.” Log Cabin Democrat, June 2, 2000. Online at http://thecabin.net/stories/060200/sta_0602000032.html (accessed April 23, 2015).
William H. Pruden III Ravenscroft School
Last Updated 1/25/2017
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