More evidence emerges of the need for a thorough review of how state surplus, known as the General Improvement Fund, was spent by legislators who controlled the money.
The highlight today is news of more than $40,000 in GIF money shipped from Northwest Arkansas to Central Arkansas from 2013 to 2015 in support of an outfit promoting a form of alternative medicine known as ozone therapy. Players already identified in the unfolding scandal, particularly Micah Neal and Jon Woods, are again part of the story.
The pork barreling is so sprawling it probably won’t get the review it needs, given the millions distributed across the state by dozens of legislators (sometimes legitimately). Legislators wouldn’t appreciate a searching look at exactly how the money they directed to local sources was spent. Even when honestly delivered, a legislator can’t always guarantee the beneficiaries at, say, a local museum spent the money on the museum and not themselves.
If nothing else, though, more digging might help the pending court case to declare the money laundering operation unconstitutional and also to shame the legislature out of doing it again, as Gov. Asa Hutchinson prefers.
* KICKBACKS: Former Republican Rep. Micah Neal has pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks to money he directed to a health agency and to Ecclesia College in Springdale. (The college says it had no role. Neal has said he got a cash kickback from a third party.)
* DUBIOUS SPENDING: The GIF expenditures were justified Judge Chris Piazza ruled in his rejection of Mike Wilson’s lawsuit over the spending (now on appeal) because the legislature designated this as economic development spending. As I reported last week, that included sending almost $60,000 from two different regional agencies to that same health agency Neal helped to buy turkeys and hams for the needy at Christmas and Thanksgiving. We’ve seen outlays for food programs abused in Arkansas. There’s no audit on GIF money after it’s in hands of the recipient. Even if this money all reached poor people, it doesn’t look much like economic/community development.
* SMELLY BACKSCRATCHING: The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday that the mayor of Berryville said he’d received a $25,000 grant for a parks maintenance building after he dropped objections to sending $200,000 to Ecclesia College. Sen. Jon Woods was in the thick of this negotiation, as he was in all of the more than $600,000 sent to Ecclesia over the years. Woods, who’s not talking, hasn’t been charged with a crime (and I allege none here) but he was a linchpin in GIF spending money in Northwest Arkansas.
* OZONE THERAPY: The list of grants worthy of further looks are staggering — with items such as a fireworks show in Benton and new warmups for North Little Rock High School athletes among a few noted earlier.
But today comes, Bad Government blogger Russ Racop (same guy complaining about Dallas Cowboys game tickets for cops) with closer examination of some of the records released by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District under FOI. I’ll boil it down, but he’s posted every relevant document:
Records show that more than $40,000 was sent from the Northwest Arkansas agency to an organization in Saline County (outside the Northwest planning district) run by Benton insurance agent Charles Snider — Arkansas Health and Economic Research Inc.
Sen. Jon Woods and Rep. Micah Neal were instrumental in the series of grants. Records also indicate support from Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Jana Della Rosa in some cases. What is this agency? As the papers on file show and Racop reports it is:
… a repository for knowledge and understanding of health research equipment and alternative health practices. As a result of identifying and researching these types of alternative modalities, such as the use of minerals and the use of applied Ozone Therapy to prevent or treat certain health aliments, we will provide economic development in Arkansas via connecting Arkansas businesses with established distribution channels, manufacturing opportunities, and we will provide educational support for the Arkansas Medical Community in the use of these modailities.”
The files contain no specific information on how the money was to be spent. There is no followup report on spending by this or any GIF recipient. Racop said he’s been unable to find how the money was used and said that Snider had not responded to his e-mail questions. Ozone therapy is, let’s say, controversial alternative medicine.
More than $40,000 shipped from a Northwest Arkansas legislative allotment to Saline County for ozone therapy? Curious.
Racop also included the corporation papers for Snider’s company. Its directors include Randell Shelton, a close friend of Jon Woods, who was among the people named in federal subpoenas to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District seeking information. Shelton’s corporate activities include at least one other, the subpoena article notes, with a tie to a person connected to Ecclesia College. The lawyer who filed the papers for Snider’s health concern happened to be David Couch, who I mentioned previously for similar work for Shelton. He also worked with Jon Woods on the medical marijuana amendment, a proposal Woods once proposed as a potential vehicle to produce tax money in support of Ecclesia College.
There’s a wide expectation more is to come as a result of Micah Neal’s guilty plea. But I need not allege a crime to say there’s already ample evidence that the GIF program was an irresponsible, unaccountable orgy of pork barreling that should end.
The courts could properly end it on constitutional grounds, I still believe. Meanwhile, some legislators want it to end, though others hate the thought of being deprived of the ability to stage big check presentations for a local food pantry, garden club or other grateful recipient.
At least one new legislator is trying to score publicity by saying he’s working on a law to prohibit the practice. No law is needed. Just say NO to another GIF bill.
Snider’s first GIF application for his ozone therapy effort: