Warren Throckmorton, the Patheos blogger, digs deeper into Ecclesia Inc., the corporation that received almost $600,000 in state General Improvement Fund revenue for the Ecclesia College in Springdale, some of which appears to be at the heart of a guilty plea by former Republican Rep. Micah Neal for taking kickbacks from GIF money.
According to research by Throckmorton (bio here), Ecclesia Inc., though a nonprofit, is not required to file a Form 990 federal tax return because it is considered a church, even further limiting accountability for use of public money by the private institution. The college website lists these activities in the Ecclesia “network: Bibles for the Nations, Ecclesia Children’s Ministries, Ecclesia Prep, Ecclesia Relief and Development, Happy Few Unlimited, Strategic Missions and Twila Paris Productions (a musical production venture).
Ecclesia, which has 200 or so students, has acknowledged receipt of GIF money but said it paid no kickbacks. Neal has pleaded guilty. An unnamed senator was said in Neal’s plea agreement to have arranged the payments to Neal through other parties. That is believed to be a reference to former Republican Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, long a supporter of the college who also directed GIF money to the college. His network of friends includes other people with ties to the college. He has not commented.
Blogger Throckmorton concludes that Ecclesia is organized as a church to shield money-making activities. Whether that’s true or not, it is undeniably a religious institution. Throckmorton reports something that has been overlooked previously:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which fights entanglement of public money and actions with religion, objected last March to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District about its support of an “overtly religious” institution, contrary to both the Arkansas and U.S. Constitutions. This was in reference to payments in 2013-14 that didn’t see broad public exposure until release in 2015 of a legislative audit on mismanagement of the District. It has since undergone a leadership change. The Foundation got a promise never to do it again from Joe Willis, the new agency director.
FFRF sought assurance that the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District would not allocate money in the future to Ecclesia College or other religious outfits. Joe Willis, executive director of the agency, promised in his reply to “make certain” that all future grants “will not be used to advance a religious purpose or cause,” adding, “It is certainly not the intention of the NWAEDD to violate either the Arkansas or United States Constitution.”
FFRF is heartened by Willis’ response.
“Taxpayer money should not be used to subsidize religious entities,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are numerous non-Christian and nonbelieving Arkansans who do not appreciate their hard-earned tax dollars being funneled into such organizations.”
The money to Ecclesia also diverted money that could have gone to needy public institutions of higher learning,
Linda Karen Hopper noted to me in a conversation yesterday. She’s the former Republican legislator from Mountain Home whose examination of NWAEDD activities led to the audit and the opening of what promises to be an even bigger can of worms than has already been revealed.
Is it too late, I wonder, for an illegal exaction lawsuit on the expenditure? Blogger Throckmorton writes:
While I doubt it will happen, I believe the Arkansas legislature should investigate the funneling of funds to Ecclesia and other religious organizations. Specifically, Ecclesia’s role, if any, in the bribery scandal should be investigated. More generally, Ecclesia’s status as a church appears to be questionable as has been the practice of allocating public funds for sectarian religious purposes.