Ecclesia College, a tiny religious school in Springdale, posted a statement Thursday night on Facebook saying that while it had received state general improvement funds it had done nothing improper to receive the money. It specifically denied paying any kickbacks to a legislator to facilitate the payments or anything else illegal.
State Rep. Micah Neal, a Springdale Republican, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal conspiracy charge for taking kickbacks from GIF money (state surplus controlled by individual legislators on a pro rata basis) directed through the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District to an unidentified nonprofit and an unidentified college. He said the kickbacks had been arranged by a state senator, also unnamed. Because Ecclesia received almost $600,000 in GIF money through the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District during the time specified in the Neal plea agreement, I and others have been trying to ask Ecclesia President Oren Paris III whether the Neal agreement referred to money the college received. Other colleges, including UA and the Northwest Arkansas Community College, received smaller sums at that time ($60,000 and $100,000 respectively).
The college, which has about 200 students according to the most recently available information, posted this statement in a development first reported by the Pathos blog, which follows religious issues. Patheos had said earlier that the college board and president were meeting Thursday afternoon on the issue.
To Students, Faculty, Staff and Friends,
As a result of what was widely reported yesterday, I am aware of statements made in a plea agreement entered into by Representative Micah Neal. Suggested by those news reports was that Ecclesia College was somehow involved in criminal activity with Mr. Neal. While it is certainly true that Ecclesia College, like NWACC and the University of Arkansas, has received General Improvement Funds as reported, I can assure you that neither I nor anyone associated with Ecclesia College has ever participated or engaged in any activity to provide money to Mr. Neal or any other legislator in exchange for the receipt of those funds.
The search for funding sources is an important part of the life of any non-profit organization. As a Christian work-college, we are not eligible for the same level of government funding as public colleges and institutions, and have from time to time engaged consultants in those efforts. While Ecclesia College did receive GIF funds from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development Corporation, every dollar of those funds have been used for the purposes for which they were requested. Every effort was made to comply with every aspect of the law as we understood it.
After reading the statements contained in Mr. Neal’s plea agreement, I can unequivocally state that neither I nor Ecclesia College have been party to illegal activity. We have never been a party to any agreements to funnel money to any state legislator.
At the end of the day, I am secure in the knowledge that there has been no wrongdoing either on my part or the school’s part, and any rumors, innuendo, or any future news reports that say otherwise are simply untruthful.
In His service,
Dr. Oren Paris III
President, Ecclesia College
I hope to talk to Paris. I’d like to ask him the name of his consultant and payments made to the consultant, if any. I left a message for him early in the day.
The Neal plea agreement represents that a state senator told Neal that the president of a college, described as a friend of the senator, would pay him a portion of money received if Neal directed money to the college. Neal said he agreed with the senator to send $50,000 of his GIF allotment to the college as part of a $200,000 grant. (The college got another almost $400,000 in a separate allocation). The money was paid by the development district to the college on Dec. 19, 2014. The agreement says:
A check dated January 5, 2015 and drawn on [the college] Entity B’s Centennial Bank account ending in 0681 in the amount of $65,000 was issued to Person C’s company and deposited that same day into Person C’s company’s Arvest Bank account ending in 7761. The check was issued at the direction of Person B. Over the following three days, Person C made three cash withdrawals per day totaling $53,700 from his company’s Arvest Bank account ending in 7761.
Between approximately December 19, 2014 and approximately January 30, 2015, and following Entity B’s receipt of NEAL’s and Senator A’s GIF money in the amount of $200,000, Senator A contacted NEAL and told him that Person C would be bringing $18,000 in cash to NEAL in exchange for NEAL having authorized and directed the appropriation of the GIF money to Entity B.
Between approximately December 19, 2014 and approximately January 30, 2015, and following NEAL’s communication with Senator A, Person C met with NEAL and, on behalf of Person B, paid NEAL $18,000 in cash.
Who is Person C? The agreement describes the person as
the incorporator and sole member of a limited liability corporation incorporated in the State of Arkansas that purportedly provides consulting services. Person C also was a friend of Senator A and Person B [the college president].
The college has had many friends in the legislature. Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale has extolled the college and its president on Facebook (see below). I was told several weeks ago by David Couch, a lawyer who was a key player in the push for the medical marijuana amendment, that Woods had participated in the drafting of the initiated amendment. Couch mentioned then, in confirming what Woods had said about his participation in the marijuana effort, that n initial draft by Woods had included a provision to direct some proceeds from a marijuana tax to colleges with a type of work-study program offered at Ecclesia. That provision didn’t wind up in the initiative.
Senator Woods’ tenure in the Senate fits the description provided of the Senator A with whom Neal said he conspired. Woods has refused to answer questions from reporters.
I reported earlier that Senate committee held a special meeting at the college last year at the behest of Vice Chair Sen. Linda Collins-Smith. The committee heard from college officials.
Collins-Smith told me in a note tonight that she had not been in contact with anyone with questions about state support for the college and that she had no contacts with the development district about its distribution of money. She added:
I have been a supporter of the mission of Ecclesia College, because I support the idea of a true work-college that limits student debt. I will be deeply disappointed if in fact it is found that Ecclesia has been involved in any illegal activity.
I subsequently learned that Collins-Smith had also written a letter to the White River Planning and Development District, which covers her senatorial district, in support of help for Ecclesia, which is outside the White River region and her district. She said:
I did write them a letter of support, as I have for many other organizations. If I recall correctly Ecclesia did not receive any funding from White River PDD.
I asked Collins-Smith about advocating for use of GIF money outside her district. She said;
In this particular case I thought it was appropriate because a college like Ecclesia could have a local impact for students from my area by reducing debt as it is a work college.
Ultimately the decisions are made by the planning and development district and I have no issues with their decision not to fund the grant request.
PS: I confirmed months ago that the FBI was looking at GIF spending in other parts of the state, including the Central Arkansas agency that distributed GIF money at Central Arkansas legislators’ direction. I have to wonder if any recipients of GIF money employed “consulting firms” to help them in raising the money. Several legislators have gotten into the consulting business in recent years, among them Jon Woods. Woods has had no other vocation during his legislative years, apart from lawmaking, except playing in a rock band. His signature achievements include weakening a proposed ethics amendment both in the amendment itself and in subsequent legislative changes. He was also the primary sponsor of a new constitutional amendment that expanded corporate welfare handouts of state tax money to private business and that legalized payment of tax money to private entities for economic development.
ALSO: The Patheos blog commentary by Warren Throckmorton on the scandal is worth noting
Paris’ denial doesn’t address the reasons for the payment of $65,000 to Person C. To address this aspect of the plea agreement, Paris should identify the consultant and the nature of the payment to that person. Did Paris know that $18,000 would go to Neal? Did Neal believe Paris was involved in the scheme? Paris’ statement does not address these and other questions.
Note to my readers who write for Christian publications. Answers to these questions and eventual accountability may not come unless you all get involved. All people in this story (Neal, Woods, Paris III, Ecclesia College) claim to be evangelical Christians. There are substantial separation of church and state issues in this story as well since an unaccredited Bible college with a celebrity Board of Regents received substantial taxpayer dollars.