Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has written a lengthy examination of the unusual fact that a great deal of prosecution evidence in the kickback case against former Sen. Jon Woods remains under seal.
Woods goes to trial Dec. 4 on charges that he took kickbacks from state money he guided to a private Christian college in Springdale. Former state Rep. Micah Neal has already pleaded guilty in the case. Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College, and Randell Shelton Jr., a friend of both Paris and Woods, will also stand trial in the scheme with Woods.
So why the secrecy? The pregnant and unanswered question is whether an investigation continues that could produce charges against others. The giant pork barrel ripoff in which state surplus was parceled out to regional planning districts for distribution at the direction of legislators is at the core of the investigation. That scheme, though held unconstitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court, was not in itself a criminal conspiracy, even if a civil wrong by the legislature. But getting kickbacks for guiding money to certain recipients is another matter. The existing charges point a finger, if not by names, at another nonprofit recipient and lobbyist.
Might those players turn up as cooperating witnesses, including against a bigger cast of legislative characters than those named so far? That’s one line of popular speculation. The government isn’t saying.
Let us not let the moment pass without another mention of the legislative legacy of Jon Woods. The state’s taxpayers owe him, to name a just a few: 1) a lengthening of term limits from 6 to 16 years; 2) a watered-down ethics law with ample loopholes for lobby wining and dining; 3) a huge increase in legislative pay; 4) legalization of millions in taxpayer handouts to chambers of commerce. Not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars in tax money sent to a Christian college, which, if not a crime, trampled all over the establishment clause to the detriment of public higher education institutions.