IRS Targets Arkansas Businessman in Dispute with Sen. Mark Pryor's Family

Ralph Bradbury is an Arkansan, through and through. At 55 years old, his blocky frame says less about his years as a Razorbacks baseball standout and more about his career in the hardscrabble trucking industry. But it’s his experience on the ball field that’s helping him get through hard days recently.

Bradbury isn’t suited up in the cardinal and white; he’s not wearing his glove and kicking up diamond dust. He’s in the thick of a game that could cost him his savings, his career, his family – even his future. Ralph Bradbury is in a fight with the Internal Revenue Service.

The father of two is fighting for his life against the IRS, who he says is trying to force him to pay $800,000 in unpaid taxes he doesn’t owe for Continental Express, a trucking company he never owned.

Allied against him: the IRS, an influential US Senator and the legislator’s mother-in-law, already caught once by the courts for quietly siphoning off Continental assets. Yet nobody is trying to find out who embezzled almost two million dollars in unpaid payroll taxes.

It’s a tale that boggles the mind.

Soon after graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1975, Ralph Bradbury took his management skills to the trucking industry. He had a head for logistics and organization and knew how to convert an array of hundreds of tractor-trailers and thousands of accounts into positive cash flow.

Ed Harvey, a Little Rock entrepreneur, recognized Bradbury’ God-given talents and in 1985 invited him to build up his one-man owned Continental Trucking into a national force. Part of the deal: Harvey promised to make him an owner of the firm in the future.

It is without question that Bradbury built Continental Express up from a variety of positions, eventually as Chief Executive Officer. After more than a decade with him at the helm, the boutique trucking company grew into a national logistics powerhouse with 500 tractor-trailers, major accounts and hundreds of top-notch employees – many of them crossing the country 24 hours of every day of the year.

As the company grew, Harvey and his wife, Bonnie, who is the Mother-In-Law of US Senator Mark Pryor, got into dozens of other businesses: banking, sawmills, boating, and many more. Continental was a cash cow for the family and the Harvey’s used the privately held firm as their piggy bank to buy properties and other bad fits for the business. Day after day, Bradbury would take calls from the Harveys letting him know of another personal expense to be borne by the company or another bad business idea he had to sort out.

Still, Bradbury managed to grow the company into an Arkansas powerhouse. After a decade with the business, he asked the Harveys to discuss his promised equity stake in the company. Each time he asked, the husband and wife team rebuffed him. Meetings to discuss the commitment were canceled and delayed; business benchmarks and goals were shifted and reset. In the end, they simply refused to give him a piece of what he had built.

Disappointed the Harveys would not make good on their promise of ownership, he left the firm in 1999.

CONTINENTAL EXPRESS CRASHES

After he left, the Harveys hired Kelly Wooldridge as president and Todd Tiefel as Chief Financial Officer to replace Bradbury’ leadership of the firm. The family took their eyes off Continental and within months Tiefel and Wooldridge started looting the place. Tractor-trailers were transferred to subsidiaries owned independently by the President and CFO. Many other shady deals slowly bled Continental.

Ed Harvey eventually figured out about the well-concealed theft, fired the two fraudsters and in 2005 begged Bradbury to return as CEO and clean up the mess. Working closely with Harvey, Bradbury discovered a web of deceit and turned the proof over to the US Attorney. Tiefel, and Wooldridge both eventually went to federal prison.

The company to which Bradbury returned was very different from the company he had left seven years before. Between the Tiefel/Wooldridge looting and a state trooper’s death caused by a Continental driver which led to a $7 million liability, the company was cash poor. And with former executives in prison and the death of a law enforcement officer on their hands, the company’s reputation was in shambles.

Even with Bradbury back in the wheelhouse, the company was truly suffering. Longtime accounts left and new accounts didn’t sign on to replace them. Cash wasn’t building up, so the firm relied heavily on vendor financing – a temporary measure which looked to be a permanent fix.

The once wealthy company was operating hand-to-mouth. Far from a cash cow, Continental Express now relied upon a $37 million line of credit personally guaranteed by Ed Harvey to operate. The company was losing $200,000 to $300,000 monthly and no longer financed the Harvey’s lifestyles, so they decided to sell the business.

The Harveys hired a broker to sell Continental Express: Marvin Jones, a man who claimed to be working around Arkansas for years but who old line Arkansans could not recall. Soon, Bradbury no longer wrote nor approved checks; he was no longer involved in the flow of funds and was removed from control of the books.

Jones gained complete financial control of Continental Express operations. Bradbury became a CEO with no authority, Marvin had no official title and Ed Harvey’s wife Bonnie called the shots.

A victim of Alzheimers, Ed Harvey slowly faded into the background and Bonnie Harvey, the Senator’s Mother-in-law, stepped in with her husband’s Power Of Attorney to run the company. She maintained full financial control of Continental Express across three years.

As Bonnie Harvey and Marvin Jones orchestrated a sale, they stopped paying payroll taxes to the federal government. In the end, Continental Express kept three quarters of taxes they withheld from employees’ wages – $1.8 million dollars.

Amazingly, this money has completely disappeared. There is no evidence Bradbury ever had it or knows where it is today. There is no accounting for who actually took millions in federal payroll taxes… yet.

While Bradbury had no fiduciary control, Harvey and Jones transferred more assets out of Continental. Two local banks sued the company for loan default and for transferring assets guaranteeing loans. Metropolitan National Bank and First Security Bank later settled their lawsuits for cash and confidentiality agreements.

By stripping the company of assets Harvey and Jones hurt the IRS’ financial position, too, on recovering the missing $1.8 million.

After the sale of Continental Express, the tax bill still nagged at Ralph Bradbury. He started sending up flares, imploring Bonnie Harvey and Jones to pay the government. Emails dating to late 2008 indicate that Jones and the Harveys’ lawyer both acknowledged Continental’s tax obligations. They made promises but paid nothing.

In fact, by moving around company assets Bonnie Harvey and Marvin Jones were demonstrating a refusal to pay – normally a red flag for the IRS.

But the IRS has never contacted the well-connected Harveys and Marvin Jones is shrugging his shoulders, saying it’s not his problem and he owes nothing.

“I was not involved in anything to do with the finances until after the company was sold” on Dec. 4, 2008, Jones told Arkansas Business. “So I’m not sure how that argument holds up.” Yet Jones had total control of the books during the time the taxes went unpaid.

Instead, the IRS pursued Ralph Bradbury for the $2.7 million total of taxes and penalties even though he had no fiscal authority. The IRS decided to pursue a former company employee instead of the company’s owners!

They chased former Continental executive Pete Campbell, too. Both negotiated with the IRS and the agency agreed the two were not decision makers for the final two quarters. But both men are still held responsible for the first missing quarter: $800,000.

Bradbury is appealing the IRS ruling and headed to court. Campbell died in the meantime; his wife received an IRS assessment for $800,000 the morning of his funeral. Harvey and Jones – the people responsible for the non-payment of the payroll taxes – have been asked for nothing.

What role has Senator Mark Pryor played in the IRS’s bizarre decision to proceed against Bradbury and not Pryor’s Mother-In-Law Bonnie Harvey? Sen. Pryor’s spokesman dismissed the idea that the Senator had used his influence to help his wife distract the IRS from his mother-in-law, according to Arkansas Business:

“This office, nor Sen. Pryor, has dealings with Ed Harvey’s business decisions,” Michael Teague said. “Mark Pryor has made no phone calls, no discussions, no emails, no letters, no meetings, nothing with the IRS in regards to this issue or anything Ed Harvey does.”

Bonnie Harvey has controlled Continental Express since Ed Harvey fell victim to Alzheimer’s and Ed cannot interact about his affairs. The carefully crafted statement from Pryor’s aide does not address how if Sen. Pryor talked business with his mother-in-law or his wife and doesn’t say he never discussed the matter with Bonnie Harvey.

Two court cases prove that Harvey and Jones defaulted on one Continental bank loan and transferred assets to avoid paying another. $1.8 million in employee taxes went unpaid under Harvey’s watch, too, and no tax or law enforcement agency has investigated where that money went.

Worse: an analysis of IRS files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act proves the agency is not pursuing anyone at all for the two other quarters of stolen taxes. Once the IRS ruled the two employees were only liable for one quarter-a quarter in which they had no actual financial control of the company, the agency mysteriously declined to pursue the owner and shareholders for the second and third quarters – the very same people who benefitted financially.

Asset transfer and missing funds routinely triggers deeper IRS investigation, but not this time – not when a person in question is the close relative of a powerful US Senator. Rules and laws are for the little people.

The only people jubilant about this situation are Arkansas Republicans.

“Mark Pryor has sowed the seeds of his own defeat,” said one giddy Republican ” Republican will say Mark Pryor arranged kid-glove treatment from the IRS for his mother-in-law and helped rip off Arkansas tax-payers for nearly two million dollars. You can almost picture the devastating 30-second negative TV commercials now.”

Sooner or later we will know three things: what did Sen. Mark Pryor know, when did he know it and will it cost him his U.S. Senate seat?

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