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Feds: Ex-aide to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady targeted in murder-for-hire plot

Prosecutors detailed the previously undisclosed plot to kill Donald "D.A." Jones, 62, of Willingboro, in filings late Monday in federal court in Missouri. The court papers accuse Milton Russel "Rusty" Cranford, a prominent Arkansas lobbyist, of attempting to set up Jones' slaying this year.

Left: Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford; Right: Donald “D.A.” Jones
Left: Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford; Right: Donald “D.A.” JonesRead moreLeft: Washington County (Ark.) Sheriff's Office; Right: Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

A former political strategist for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady was targeted in a murder-for-hire plot to stop him from cooperating with an ongoing corruption probe in Arkansas and Missouri, federal authorities said.

Prosecutors detailed the previously undisclosed scheme to silence Donald "D.A." Jones, 62, of Willingboro, in federal court filings late Monday in Missouri. They say Milton Russel "Rusty" Cranford, a prominent Arkansas lobbyist, tried to set up Jones' slaying earlier this year.

Cranford, 56, was arrested last month in Bentonville, Ark., carrying a .45-caliber, derringer-style pistol and $17,700 in cash that authorities say he intended to pay to a contract killer.

"He needs to go away," the lobbyist purportedly said in a caught-on-tape conversation with Jones' would-be killer. Miming a shooting motion with his hands, a transcript states, Cranford added: "He needs to be gone."

Jones – a fixture in the world of Philadelphia Democratic politics – has developed a reputation over decades as an expert in get-out-the-vote efforts for local campaigns. Aside from Brady, his past clients include former City Controller Jonathan Saidel and Sheriff Jewell Williams.

More recently, his status as a key FBI informant has pushed Jones back into public view. In December, he admitted that he had played a role in a scheme to cover up $90,000 that Brady's campaign paid in 2012 to persuade a Democratic primary challenger to drop out of the race.

But it was Jones' cooperation in an unrelated investigation involving political work he did for a Springfield, Mo.-based substance-abuse nonprofit, Preferred Family Healthcare, that allegedly drew Cranford's ire.

Days after pleading guilty in the Brady case, Jones told a federal judge in Missouri that he had been illegally paid nearly $1 million of the charity's money to lobby lawmakers in Washington. He also admitted to kicking back nearly a third of that sum to Cranford and a former Arkansas state representative.

Cranford – who had previously worked as an executive for Preferred Family and served as Jones' primary liaison with the charity – worried that Jones might implicate him in the kickback scheme. So, according to court filings, he contacted a convicted felon with whom he was friendly in a bid to ensure Jones never got the chance.

Their first conversation allegedly occurred just hours after Jones' Dec. 18 guilty plea in Springfield. Prosecutors did not name the would-be killer in their court filings Monday but described him as a man who had spent years in prison for violent crimes.

Unfortunately for Cranford, the man had also become an FBI informant. He told agents about the lobbyist's alleged murder plot and agreed to record future conversations.

Prosecutors shared transcripts of those recordings with a judge this week in a bid to keep Cranford imprisoned until his trial.

They sketch a vivid portrait of a man at loose ends – one with a penchant for hasty decisions, colorful language, and larger-than-life appetites for gambling, graft, and drugs.

On the tapes, Cranford referenced his impending divorce, discussed his attempts to buy hydrocodone on the streets of Texarkana, Ark., and boasted of the role he says he played in securing the early release of a convicted murderer from prison last year.

He worried that it might have been that latest feat that first drew the scrutiny of investigators. As he put it, they had to suspect that there was "no way that [he] could have accomplished all this s–t without being dirty."

But the conversations between Cranford and the man he allegedly hoped to hire for murder always came back to Jones.

Court documents describe a Jan. 9 meeting in which Cranford handed the unnamed FBI cooperator $500 as a down payment and offered to provide him with "the piece" to use for the murder.

In subsequent talks, Cranford railed against Jones, referring to him as a "snitching motherf—er" who had just "rolled on" Brady and "cut himself a deal" to do the same on others in Arkansas and Missouri. (Brady was not ultimately charged in connection with the investigation of his 2012 campaign.)

Yet even as Cranford allegedly plotted Jones' murder, he seemed desperate to convince his contact that the political strategist could not connect him to any of the allegations at the heart of the Preferred Family Healthcare case.

"Show me where I'm dirty," Cranford said, according to one transcript included in the Monday filing. "Yeah, have I paid a hell of a lot of politicians? I sure have over the years – a s–tload of money. But I've wrote them all checks. … If mothef—ers trying to buy somebody, they ain't going to write 'em a check for it."

Armed with those recordings, FBI agents arrested Cranford on Feb. 21. He has remained in custody since then, accused, for now, only of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Preferred Family. Prosecutors have said that his alleged attempt to have Jones murdered remains under investigation and is likely to result in additional charges.

A lawyer for Cranford, Nathan Garrett, adamantly denied the accusations Tuesday, calling them "untested and unreliable aspersions" and "mischaracterizations" from "highly questionable sources."

Jones, who has kept a low profile since he began cooperating in the Preferred Family Healthcare and Brady cases, declined to comment through his lawyer. He is scheduled to be sentenced in both cases next month.