Good story from Christie Swanson in the Northwest Arkansas edition of D-G over the weekend on the Eccelsia College scandal, which Max and Ernie Dumas have been covering here for the last few months.
As far as I know, the central Arkansas edition of the Democrat-Gazette has not published the story in print, which seems curious given that it relates to a federal corruption probe into state legislators’ use of public funds.
Former Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty earlier this month to taking kickbacks in order to direct money to a health agency and to Ecclesia College, a tiny bible college in Springdale that offers degrees in Bible studies, Christian counseling, Christian leadership, communication or music ministry, business, or sports management (as well as emphases in pastoral leadership or worship ministry). The college says it had no role in directing money to Neal, who has said he got a cash kickback from a third party. The Justice Department’s case mentions another state senator involved — it has become clear that this is apparently a reference to former Sen. Jon Woods.
Using the GIF process, a number of Republican lawmakers directed around $700,000 to Ecclesia between 2013 and 2015 for purchases of land of questionable need, led by Woods, who requested more than $350,000.
Some interesting tidbits from Swanson’s story: Though most of the money was supposed to be for construction of student housing, there’s no evidence of construction or structural renovation. And the land was purchased at well over its appraised value.
Doug Thompson wrote up a helpful sidebar listing the ten current or former legislators who directed state grants to Ecclesia College from 2013 through March 2015, totaling $617,500:
Woods (R-Springdale) $350,000
Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) $60,000
State Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) $60,000
Neal (R-Springdale) $50,000 to the college
Former state Rep. Randy Alexander (R-Rogers) $26,500
Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) $14,000
Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) $13,5000 Dotson is an alumnus of Ecclesia College.
Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) $8,500
Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers) $10,000
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier, the sole legislator on this list not from northwest Arkansas) $25,000 (for matching money for a federal student aid grant).
Thompson also got quotes from each explaining their reasoning.
The list above totals $617,500. The figure doesn’t include another $100,000 the college received via the West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District in Hot Springs; it’s unclear who directed that money.
Meanwhile, Max reported earlier this month on documentation that appears to show additional legislative GIF allotments, under the guise of “workforce development” to fund students attending the college, for Ecclesia later in 2015:
The following document covers some of the construction money that Ecclesia got as part of almost $600,000 in taxpayer support for construction on the church/college campus. But it also details money reportedly pledged in 2015 by local legislators from their GIF allotments in the name of workforce development to pay for students to attend the college — $1,000 from Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, $5,000 from Rep. Grant Hodges, $5,000 from Rep. Jana Della Rosa, $10,000 from Rep. Justin Harris and $5,000 from Rep. Charlie Collins.
These are unrelated to the kickback probe.
For good background on the Ecclesia scandal, I recommend this column, which includes some of the ugly history behind the GIF process, from Dumas in December:
Never mind the establishment clauses of the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions, which once were thought to prevent either support of or antipathy toward any spiritual institution. …
Nearly all the Republican legislators in the nine counties, led by the now retiring Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, where the little school is located, pitched in to raise more than half a million dollars to buy nearby land with old family houses that are now listed as dormitories and for what apparently is just operating money.
Woods, who ran for the Senate on the promise that he would “rock the boat,” pulled out of his re-election race at the filing deadline last month, and explained that he needed to spend more time with his family. That’s rarely a good omen.