Ecclesia College, enmeshed in an alleged kickback scheme involving its president Oren Paris III, former state Sen. Jon Woods and Randell Shelton Jr., a friend of both Paris and Woods, posted this letter on its Facebook page last night. (Board member Joseph Wood is the Republican county judge of Washington County.)
The Patheos blog notes that the college’s board of regents include such notables as Pat Boone, David Barton and Eric Metaxas.
There’s been a smell arising from Ecclesia ever since a state audit raised questions about money funneled to it and other recipients through the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District at the insistence of area legislators. Virtually every legislator in that part of the state pushed money to Ecclesia and others elsewhere, notably Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, also tried to pitch in state taxpayer money to the Bible college, with an enrollment of perhaps 200 supported by federal money funneled through a work-study program for which only Ecclesia qualifies in Arkansas. Jon Woods tried to pump millions in state money to the college through separate legislation. He once tried to make the college beneficiary of new tax money from the medical marijuana amendment.
What did all the Ecclesia supporters in the legislature get from Woods in return for their participation in a scheme that, an indictment says, enriched Woods, former Rep. Micah Neal and the college president? Perhaps nothing more than gratitude and a prayer. Perhaps only that “ethics” amendment Woods fathered that extended term limits and opened the door for huge pay raises for legislators. That’s pretty tangible thanks. Maybe it’s only that the people at Ecclesia are such good, conservative Christians. Federal prosecutors unearthed that talking point provided by President Paris as Woods was rounding up state tax dollars for the school.
Much more is to be known about Ecclesia land dealings, too. And there are some strings to be pursued in other business relationships involving the trio indicted yesterday. The Paris name turns up, for example, in some enterprises related to Randell Shelton, whose close friendship with Jon Woods is also part of the story. Each served as the other’s best man.
But the biggest question pending is what shoe will drop related to another lobbyist/nonprofit executive also mentioned by reference but not by name in yesterday’s indictment as a player in the state General Improvement Fund pay-to-play scandal. Does he get off scot-free? Is a separate indictment coming? Or, maybe, is he helping the feds with further inquiries, given that he had a hand in working with legislators in other parts of the state on delivery of GIF money to his companies through local planning agencies?
UPDATE: This morning, the Justice Department released its news release summary of the case.
It makes clear that the government believes another person involved with another non-profit other than the college paid bribes to Woods and Micah Neal, the former legislator who’s already pleaded guilty in the case. What of him? We shall see. The Justice Department declined to answer any questions beyond the press release.
To summarize the indictment: Woods was charged in 11 counts of wire fraud, a count of mail fraud and a count of money laundering. Paris and Shelton face nine counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud.
ALSO: In planning for this day a few weeks ago, I came across a photo of Oren Paris III on Facebook with a politician, Ted Cruzy, he admirede. You’ll recall the indictment talks about how Jon Woods could sell other legislators on giving their GIF money to Ecclesia because it was a conservative Christian place, not one of those liberal secular colleges.
Cari Paris wrote of Oren Paris’ meeting with Ted and Heidi Cruz in a note accompanying this photo:
Oren has actually had the oportunity of being at meetings with Trump, Rubio, and Cruz that went far beyond the stump speeches where no press was present. Maybe his take from actually being with these candidates can be helpful to you as you seek to utilize your vote and God given influence to the fullest. His thought on Trump is that he is arrogant, vulgar, and scripturally unqualified based on the criterion found for selecting leaders in Exodus 18:21. I’ve heard him observe repeatedly that Rubio and Cruz are roughly the same age physically, but do not possess the same level of spiritual understanding or preparation. At one of the meetings Oren was able to attend Senator Cruz and his wife Heidi shared how the Lord led them to run for the Presidential Office. I remember Oren sharing with me how the love of Jesus shone through Heidi as she told of her prayer to God whether she should do this for Ted (leave her job and dive into a campaign) or not. The Lord spoke to her and said, “No you should not do it for Ted. You should do it for Me, for my glory.” That meeting lasted more than 7 hours and was filled with Senator Cruz and Heidi (daughter and granddaughter of missionaries) sharing their hearts, answering questions, and joining in prayer for revival in our nation. Oren had been leaning towards Cruz, but after that time and seeing the wonderful woman of faith at Senator Cruz’s side, Oren was fully convinced that God had uniquely prepared and positioned him to be our President.
Interesting because Sen. Jon Woods was an early Trump backer, a rarity among sitting legislators.